This is Cathal Dennehy’s reflections on the 2023 World Athletics Championships, held in Budapest from August 19-27, 2023. It was, simply, the finest of the World Outdoor Athletics Championships. 

There was a common trend among athletes walking off the track at the World Championships in Budapest: a consistent opinion about what they’d just seen, heard, and felt.

It was about the atmosphere.

They repeatedly remarked about the noise and electricity rattling around the National Athletics Centre as they competed. US long jump star Tara Davis described it as the best she’d ever encountered by some distance.

Others, like Ireland’s Sophie Becker, who competed in the mixed relay and women’s 4x400m finals, said it spurred her on to greater heights. “Coming out on that track, with the energy from the crowd, it was just electric,” she said. “It gave me so much energy to get out of those blocks. It gave me goosebumps.”

Stadium, Budapest, photo by Kevin Morris

There are many ways to measure the success of these championships, but looking around the dazzling arena each night was perhaps the best of all. This biennial gathering is, in reality, the most important event that exists in the sport. Sure, the Olympics gain greater traction, extending its reach even into the consciousness of many who don’t care in any way about watching the world’s fastest and strongest strut their stuff, but the reality of the five-ringed circus? It’s virtually guaranteed to be a success, at least in terms of its global reach, its (usually) packed stands, and it is slick, effective TV broadcasts.

With the World Championships, that’s not always the case. Trace the event’s 40-year history, and you will find plenty of editions that were memorable mostly for being distinctly forgettable, while others will forever form part of the sport’s finest highlights reel.

To gauge the true popularity of this sport, no event is more important than the World Championships, and, as such, no event is more important to showcase to the world what it’s about. After spending the past two weeks in Budapest, we can say this with absolute objectivity: they did just that.

Medals, World Athletics Championships
Budapest, Hungary
August 19-27, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

At the end of the 2012 Olympics in London, Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the Organising Committee, told the people of Britain: “When our time came – we did it right.” Those words seemed to carry more than a decade down the line as Coe, now President of World Athletics, gathered with journalists on the last Sunday evening at the stadium, reflecting on what had been a remarkable week of athletics. “I can’t remember a better atmosphere at a championship,” he said. “These have been a truly great championships.”

He was right. Think about all we witnessed over those nine days: that unforgettable sprint showdown in the women’s 100m, where Sha’Carri Richardson showed she is, in fact, someone who can shine on the biggest stage; that men’s 1500m, and Josh Kerr upsetting the odds, giving Jakob Ingebrigtsen nightmares about the British vest for a second straight year.

Agony and Ecstacy, KJT, World Athletics Championships
Budapest, Hungary
August 19-27, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

There was the men’s shot put and Ryan Crouser shrugging off a preparation from hell, hampered by blood clots in his legs, to win gold by a country mile. Crouser said he could have thrown at least 30cm farther without such issues – a notice sent out to the world that his world record is living on borrowed time.

Noah Lyles reigned supreme in the men’s sprints, while Shericka Jackson went where only one woman had ever gone before in the women’s 200m. There was also the usual string of upsets, with Antonio Watson claiming gold in the men’s 400m, Ethan Katzberg taking the hammer, and Mary Moraa triumphing in an all-time classic women’s 800m. Then there was Faith Kipyegon, who turned the very idea of defeat into a foolish notion, unleashing lethal 56-second last laps in both the 1500m and 5000m to claim gold. No woman in history has done it better.

Noah Lyles, World Athletics Championships
Budapest, Hungary
August 19-27, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

Yulimar Rojas showed the traits of a champion, and her knack for dramatic effect, when leaving it to the last round to claim triple jump gold, as did Japan’s Haruka Kitaguchi in the women’s javelin.

The global spread of this sport was once again on full display, with 46 nations getting on the medal table, each of them going home with something to celebrate, something to inspire legions more to take up the sport in their respective countries. The hosts got a well-deserved medal in the men’s hammer through Bence Halasz, but the reality was it didn’t need a Hungarian in contention for the crowd to roar their encouragement throughout the week.

It is all about the fans! World Athletics Championships
Budapest, Hungary
August 19-27, 2023

This was a passionate, enthusiastic, and, by all accounts, educated athletics crowd, able to raise their volume for the likes of Kipyegon, Crouser, or Duplantis, knowing and appreciating greatness when it came to visiting their hometown.

A record 2100 athletes competed from 195 countries, with more than 400,000 spectators filing through the gates across the nine days. Traffic was so busy to the World Athletics website that they had to strip it back to just the live results section each night, ensuring it could stay running, with over 400,000 requests coming in per minute.

Josh Kerr is the World Champion, photo by Kevin Morris

The medal plaza idea, outside the main stadium, wasn’t invented for this championships, but it was mastered in a way that makes it hard to see a return to the in-stadium ceremonies, at least when they’re done like this, as part of a thriving fan zone, where people from all nationalities mingled as one, united by their love of the sport.

“This is a World Championships city and a country with a long-term, ambitious vision for sport and legacy that goes way beyond a nine-day competition,” said Coe, and it was impossible to disagree.

Budapest and Hungary may have issues at a political level, as any conversation with a local will have told you over the last couple of weeks, but there’s little doubt that when it comes to putting on a great show, welcoming the world to its stage, they do this kind of thing very, very well.

And the sport is all the better for having come here.

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