Solomon Barega restored Ethiopia’s dominance in the men’s 10,000m, charging to the front on the final lap and holding off two Ugandan favorites to win the first athletics gold medal of the Tokyo Olympic Games on Friday, July 30, 2021.
The 20-year-old Barega staved off a late challenge from world record-holder, Joshua Cheptegei, and world-leader, Jacob Kiplimo, to win his first major championships title in 27:43.22.
Barega’s triumph brought redemption for Ethiopia, which had dominated the 25-lap event for more than 20 years – with Haile Gebrselassie winning back-to-back titles in 1996 and 2000 and Kenenisa Bekele earning consecutive victories in 2004 and 2008.
Britain’s Mo Farah swept the men’s 5,000m and 10,000m in 2012 and 2016, but failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
“It’s very well known that we have been winners for the 10,000m competition,” Barega said. “Since Kenenisa won the last time, we have been unable to achieve a gold medal. I am very proud. It means a lot to me. Even in the future, I want to make history like my previous colleagues. I’m also very hopeful to achieve more in this Olympics.”
Barega, who won silver in the 5000m at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, said he still plans to run the 5000m in Tokyo. Cheptegei and Kiplimo are also in the 5000m race.
Cheptegei, the reigning world 10,000m champion took silver on Friday in 27:43.63 for his first Olympic medal. Kiplimo won the bronze in 27:43.88, marking the first time Uganda placed two athletes on the podium at an Olympics.
Cheptegei broke Bekele’s world 5000m and 10,000m world records last year but hadn’t run the longer distances this year.
The 20-year-old Kiplimo, meanwhile, had clocked a world-leading 26:33.93 in May, the second-fastest time over the distance since 2008 and a mark which moved him to seventh on the world all-time list.
So, while the Ugandans came in as the athletes to beat, it was Barega who timed his run to perfection on the night.
Another Ugandan, Stephen Kissa, set the early pace, separating from the pack by more than 40 meters and 10 seconds at different stages as part of what he said was the Ugandan team’s strategy.
But after Barega and Kenya’s, Rhonex Kipruto, eventually pulled even with him, Kissa dropped out with nine laps to go.
“It was a sacrifice for the team,” Kissa said. “We had a plan for me to go ahead to make it a fast race. I thought they were going to follow me but when I looked round they were not there. My teammates stayed behind. They couldn’t do it.”
Kiplimo said Kissa’s pace-making strategy didn’t work.
“He was trying to push the pace, maybe a bit too fast,” he said. “It’s a bit hot, a bit too humid. That’s why we didn’t follow the pace.”
Kipruto held the lead until Cheptegei pulled slightly ahead with four laps to go as another Kenyan, Rodgers Kwemoi, hung on his shoulder. Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed made a break to the front on the second-to-last lap but couldn’t sustain the pace.
Barega swept back into the lead as the bell lap rung and never looked back. Cheptegei and Kiplimo began their kick with about 200m to go. Cheptegei passed Kiplimo with 20 meters left and closed on Barega but it was not enough.
Cheptegei was philosophical about the result.
“I came here expecting to win gold, but you never know how someone has prepared and you just have to be grateful and thankful that you had the best opportunity of being on the podium,” he said.
Cheptegei said he was bothered by an Achilles tendon injury and lack of motivation in the build-up to the Games.”This year was really a very difficult year for me in terms of racing,” he said adding, “It’s the year that I have lost all the focus, all the belief. There was a lot of pressure and I was losing it out in every moment.”
For Barega, the victory provided him with another goal: taking Cheptegei’s world record.
“That is my primary target,” he said. “I want to break the record in the future.”