Friday, August 21, 2009

Team Ethiopia in Berlin- Day 5, 6

Women’s 5000M
Day 5 started with women’s 5000M qualification. Speculation of Tirunesh possibly competing in the 5000M as well as Mesert Defar’s withdrawal due to illness proved unfounded. The qualifying round for this event is almost unnecessary because 15 out of the 22 women would advance to the final.

All the Ethiopians have comfortably advanced to Saturday’s final. Sentayehu Ejigu looked very good winning the first heat with tired looking Meselech Melkamu also advancing with a third place finish. I am not sure what to expect from Sentayehu in the final. She has had some good races this year but her personal best is from five years ago. Meseret Defar won the second heat kicking strong in the final 100M as if it was the final. Perhaps she was exorcising the demons from the 10000M race, but it was unnecessary expenditure of energy. Genzebe Dibaba also advanced to the finals from the same heat as well as Alemitu Bekele who runs for Turkey (kudos for keeping your name).

Men’s 5000M
In my opinion, this was the low point for Team Ethiopia at the Berlin World Championships so far. The pain felt by the loss of the women 10000M race was enhanced by the outcome of the men’s 5000M race. At the end of the two heats, Kenenisa was the only Ethiopian to advance to Sunday’s final. Bekana Daba finished 6th in the second heat while Ali Abdosh finished 13th in the first heat.

I could not fathom the concept of only one Ethiopian in a global 5000M championship race: USA advanced three runners, Kenya and Morocco had two each, but Ethiopia had only one, as did Spain and Great Britain! This was rectified at the end of day yesterday when Ali Abdosh was reinstated back in the final based on appeal filed. Apparently, Ali was spiked early on in the qualifying race causing him to lose a shoe and fell some 200M back in his attempt to recover his shoe. Big kudos go to Ali for finishing the race and for making the appeal possible. There is a lesson in there for athletes who take a DNF at the slightest unraveling of their race plan.

Sunday’s final should be quite interesting. Bernard Lagat was unhappy about finishing third in the 1500M final and vowed “revenge” in the 5000M. Lagat went further to promise his fans “I will run strong and win it for us.” Will Lagat beat Kenenisa or will Kenenisa get the first ever 5000/10000 double in world championship history? Will Eliud Kipchoge beat them both?

Men’s 1500M
If the men’s 5000M qualifying was the lowest point so far, men’s 1500M final has to be the highest. Ethiopia did not win this race, and in fact has not ever won this race in any World Championship. Then again, Ethiopia has never won the 5000M in any World Championship either, so winning is not the point here, at least from my perspective. The point is the tactical brilliance and the raw talent Deresse Mekonnen displayed to execute his plan to near perfection. The 1500M is a very tough physical (and mental) race where the slightest mistake in tactic or lapse in concentration could be the difference between a gold medal and fourth place. Deresse’s plan to stay out of trouble for the first three laps, then take the lead at the bell and push like there is no tomorrow was so on target that it delivered him a silver medal while the Kenyan pre-race favorite Kiprop finished fourth.

Now, to be fair, Deresse did not just appear out of nowhere on to the Berlin podium. He is the reigning World Indoor Champion in 1500M. He also won the Dream Mile in Oslo few weeks ago setting a new Ethiopian national record. However, an indoor race is very different from outdoor, and a meet in Oslo is a far cry from a World Championship final race. This time all the big guns were present having done their best preparation to claim the title. And Deresse beat all of them but one. Ethiopia was so written off in the 1500M that Deresse was not even mentioned in IAAF preview of the 1500M race.

Deresse’s performance hints at an untapped potential and possible bright future for Ethiopia in middle distance races. Kenya, Morocco, and Algeria have been there for decades. Is it time Ethiopia claims some territory? Success in middle distance races has been a developing theme for Ethiopian runners this season and Deresse’s race to the silver medal in Berlin may represent a defining moment for Ethiopian athletics- if it is understood by those who call the shots. We can no longer rely on superstars and must branch out and “diversify” to other distances where we see evidence of talent to compete with Kenya at the same level.

The message is simple: stop the bleeding (i.e. coach of the Bahraini gold medal winner is a transplanted Ethiopian) and start diversifying (i.e. take results such as silver in the 1500M and develop more runners.) After all, isn’t that how this whole thing started in the marathon and 10000M back in the 1960’s??

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