Thijmen Kupers’ dreams for Tokyo 2020

Racing to the Olympics

Three hundredths of a second. That’s all that stood between athlete Thijmen Kupers and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The RUG student is determined to make it to Tokyo for the 2020 Games.
By Koen Marée / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photos Reyer Boxem

‘2020 is going to be my year. I’m making a comeback.’

Sat in his living room, Thijmen Kupers explains his strategy for the coming Olympic season. Over the next few months, the master student of Human-Machine Communication and 800-metre runner will do everything he can to qualify for the Games.

The time is now. Kupers is twenty-eight years old and at his physical peak. Any injuries he’s had are in the past. He’s feeling good.

Rio de Janeiro

But three years ago, he wasn’t feeling his best; he found himself on the ground at the running track of the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, his running shoes next to him, his face buried in his hands. Minutes before, he had ruined his last chance to qualify for the Games in Rio de Janeiro.

One minute, forty-five seconds, and twenty hundredths of a second. This is the time Kupers had been chasing all season long, and it would haunt him for a long time to come. His previous attempts failed at twenty-eight, twenty-five, and twenty-three hundredths. He’d hoped the Dutch team would bring him along anyway, but his hopes were dashed.

Athletes he’d left in the dust did manage to qualify for the Games

Kupers was forced to watch the Games at home on his television.

He was gutted when he saw the people participating in the semi-finals. Athletes he left in the dust during the 2015 European championships, where he won a bronze medal, are there in Rio. Some of them were lucky enough that their countries weren’t as strict in their time limits as the Netherlands. While they were slower than Kupers, they still managed to qualify.

Time limit

For Tokyo, his time limit is the same as in 2016: 1:45:20. This time however, it’s not just the Dutch athletes that have to make this time, it’s everyone. If fewer than forty-eight people qualify, athletes from the world ranking will be added to the list. ‘It will be easier for me to qualify’, says Kupers. ‘I run very consistent times, so I’m pretty sure I can make the top 36 in the ranking.’

Even if he doesn’t stay under the limit, he still has a good chance for a ticket to Japan. Nevertheless, he’s critical of the selection process: ‘It’s not necessarily more honest. Some races give you bonus points for the ranking, but you have to be lucky enough to actually run in them. And whether or not that happens depends on your ranking and your manager’s contacts.’

He’d prefer to just make his time.

Bad years

He proved he’s capable during the season after the 2016 Olympic Games. Missing his chance that year affected him greatly, but Kupers, who back then was still studying movement sciences, made a comeback. During the FBK Games in Hengelo, he set a personal record: 1:44:99. He also won an international, highly rated race in Stockholm.

2018 started off great. He was running a lot and was at the top of his game. But then he injured his Achilles tendon. Goodbye Dutch championships; so long to a season of indoor running.

An injury to his Achilles tendon ruined his indoor season.

Then, something weird starts happening: Kupers loses the feeling in one of his feet. He can no longer control it properly. ‘It was so weird. Normally I’m really good at finding my balance. But I couldn’t even stand on one leg anymore.’

The stress on his other foot leads to a second injury to his Achilles tendon. It’s not until halfway through this year that his issues, probably caused by a pinched nerve, are dealt with. Kupers returns for a few races, but he’s now focused on the 2020 season.


Because he’s focusing on Tokyo, his studies into Human-Machine Communication have been pushed back for a while. But Kupers has been applying what he’s learned to his sports career.

‘I study how the brain works, how we process information, and how a computer system can use this’, he explains. ‘I’m currently trying to analyse my own running logbook with an algorithm. Every day, I write down how I felt both during and after a training session. Perhaps the computer can analyse my words and sentence structure to see if I’m at risk for an injury, for example.’

He doesn’t expect the computer to predict everything, though: ‘You’ll always need that human eye. But working with a system definitely has its benefits.’

For the sake of future students, he hopes the loans system gets cancelled

The human aspect in Kupers’ athletic career is his coach: ‘I’ve got a very analytic character, but you need someone to look at you more objectively. Someone who tells me to keep going when I’m not doing so great. But who also tells me to pull back so I don’t exhaust myself.’

Kupers plans to graduate in 2021. ‘I wanted to graduate earlier, but an athlete’s life is great and gets you a lot. I’ve learned a lot about myself, met new people, and travelled the world.’ He hopes that the loans system gets cancelled soon. Future students need it. ‘We have to be able to indulge in extracurricular activities. And I don’t mean studying full time and working on your CV, but something completely different. People have to find their joy somewhere.’

4 Miles

His road to Tokyo will start this Sunday, when he’ll run the 4 Mile race as ‘a perfect benchmark’. ‘For an 800-metre runner I’m actually pretty good at that distance, although I tend to start off a little too strong. But it’s a great race, with all those people on the sidelines. At the petrol station in Haren I always high five the school kids.’

After the race, he’s off to training camps, test runs, and to run serious races. What will it take for Kupers to be content with his athletic career? Actually, he says, he’s already content. He’s won national championships, has European medals, and travelled all over the world.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not giving it all to make it to the next season. He won’t be happy until his place at the Games is certain. The ultimate comeback.


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