East African nation enjoyed a winning start with Selemon Barega but failed to win a women’s title for the first time since 1988 and took only four medals in total

It’s not often you can accuse Ethiopian athletes of not finishing well. In numerous Olympic and World Championship races they have been the fastest finishers in most global endurance races.

In Tokyo, though, they started well with a gold medal in the 10,000m and thereafter there were no gold medals and just three minor medals.

Men’s 10,000m
In 1980, Miruts Yifter won Ethiopia’s first ever Olympic track title as he blasted the last 300 metres of the 10,000m in 39 seconds. His time was 27:42.69.

Some 41 years later, Ethiopia won their sixth title in a time that was just half a second slower thanks to Selemon Barega’s 27:43.22. His last 300m was a fraction slower than Yifter’s too.

Of course, Tokyo did have stifling heat – but so did Moscow – and as there have been the fastest Olympic heats in history at nearly all the longer track races, fast running was clearly possible.

Considering the modern advantages of tracks, shoes, kit, training and nutritional knowledge over this time it does appear that distance running has not moved on as much as we think in the last 40-50 years.

Ethiopia also won a medal in 1972 through a relatively young Yifter (he still looked about 50!) in a similar time of 27:40.96 which placed him a close third behind Lasse Viren and Emiel Puttemans.

Of course, times can be misleading and depend on how the race was run but I think the Yifter of 1980 would have probably out-kicked Barega while the Viren of 1972 – who ran the last 800m in 1:56 after an earlier fall mid-race – would have been in contention for a medal.

That might sound strange considering that Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei would have easily lapped Viren and Yifter if he had run a similar pace to his world record from 2020 (26:11.00).

Though the 1972 and 2021 times are very similar, the way the races were run were vastly different.

In 1972, European record-holder David Bedford set the fastest speed ever seen in a 25-lap race in a bid to burn off the expected faster finishers passing 3000m in 8:06.4 and 5000m in 13:43.9. The pace then slowed significantly as Bedford faltered but then Viren pushed on over the last kilometre.

Finishing times do not show the whole story but the pace in the Toyko 10,000m was slow due to the conditions and, considering the pace, the finishing speed was not that amazing which would have given the athletes from 1972 and 1980 a fighting chance.

While winning in Doha with a good long drive, Cheptegei been outclassed in the Diamond League 5000m at Florence and in Tokyo he decided with team-mate Kiplimo that they did not need a really fast pace to put the Ethiopians Barega and Yomif Kelelcha under pressure.

They did seemingly sacrifice an athlete in Stephen Kissa, who ran out alone in front for much of a mediocre first half of 14:08.56, but it was at that pace he was never going to cause any problems to the Ethiopians.

The 28-minute pace pretty much continued throughout until a blistering last 1000m of 2:25.0 at least made the time slightly more respectable and most of that pace came in a 53.9 last lap. That was quick but nothing that the Kenenisa Bekele of 2004 and 2008 and the Mo Farah of 2012 and 2016 couldn’t have handled.

Selemon Barega clinches 10,000m gold (Getty)

Cheptegei and Kiplimo did have some luck as world silver medallist Kejelcha was not at his best covering the last lap in 62.5 when many thought he was capable of 10 seconds faster and Kenyan trials winner Geoffrey Kamworor was a late withdrawal from the race.

Barega though was the class of 2021. He is still only 21 and was a previous world youth and junior champion and won senior global silver medals indoors in 2018 and outdoors at Doha in 2019 and may have many years ahead him.

Already he has run significantly faster than Viren and Yifter outside Olympic competition, but he still has some way to match their respective four and two golds and legendary status.

This was Ethiopia’s fifth win in the last seven Games with Mo Farah winning the missing two.

Men’s 3000m steeplechase
When Ethiopia originally announced their steeplechase team it was without Getnet Wale and Lamecha Girma.

Wale, officially 21 but looking many years older, was fourth In Doha and set a 8:09.47 world lead in Ostrava but more impressively came close to the world 3000m record indoors with a 7:24.98 clocking ahead of Barega.

Doha silver medallist Girma ran 7:27.98 behind Wale but was injured at the time of the trials but a 8:07.75 world lead at Monaco in July persuaded the selectors to change their mind.

In the Tokyo heats Girma ran the fastest qualifier in history of 8:09.83. Given their 3:35 1500m speed the two Ethiopians were confident of winning a slow run race and it was slow with 1000m in 2:50.1 which is 8:30 pace.

Girma did begin to push on at halfway in 4:14.3 and he completed the three laps up to the bell in 65.1, 64.7 and 62.3. However, Moroccan Soufiane El Bakkali, who was third in Doha, had run a 3:31.95 1500m in Monaco and was full of running and eased away in the last 200m which, with a water jump and hurdle, he covered in 28.8. His last 400m of 57.90 and 800m of 2:00.02 and 1000m in 2:32.4 were the fastest on record.

Girma ran a 59.9 last lap to finish a clear second but Wale, second with 300m to go, ran a poor 64.1 last circuit and faded to fourth. The two Ethiopians matched their Doha positions but two years stronger and far better athletes, far more was expected.

Women’s 5000m
When Gudaf Tsegay broke the world indoor 1500m record in Lievin despite appalling pacemaking and left Laura Muir’s British record six seconds in arrears, she looked a favourite for the shorter event in Tokyo and backed that up with world indoor leads at 800m (1:57.52) and 3000m (8:22.65).

She carried on that form outdoors with a 3:54.01 1500m and world leads at the time of 5000m (14:13.32) and 10,000m (29:39.42) and went into Tokyo unbeaten but deciding on the 5000m alone which surprised many. However, despite a 59.4 last lap she was no match for Sifan Hassan’s 57.1 final or indeed Hellen Obiri’s 58.9.

Hellen Obiri leads the Olympic 5000m (Getty)

For a runner who had so been so dominant the rest of the year this was a major disappointment as she matched the bronzes she won in the 2016 World Indoors and at Doha in 2019 at 1500m.

She surely would have been a factor had she run the 10,000m later in the Games.

Women’s 3000m steeplechase
Mekides Abebe was close to a medal with fourth place in 9:06.16 falling less than a second short. A 9:02.52 Ethiopian record in the Doha Diamond League in may while still a teenager suggests she is a definite global medal prospect for the future.

Women’s 800m
Habitam Alemu ran a good tactical race and was well placed in third from 200m to 600m but a 30.2 last 200m saw her fade to sixth in 1:57.56.

Sadly, Werkwuha Getachew, who had thrashed Alemu in the Ethiopian Trials at Hengelo in a then world lead of 1:56.67 was not allowed to compete in Tokyo as she had never previously raced internationally or broken two minutes and therefore had not been on the drug testing list for sufficient length.

Men’s 5000m
Ethiopia stubbornly left double world champion Muktar Edris out of their team despite following up a modest trials run (13:04.69 in fifth) with a 7:30.96 3000m PB which was far superior form to what he showed prior to winning in Doha.

The day after his disappointing steeplechase Wale (12:53.28 to win their trials) was a non-qualifying ninth in his heat (behind Marc Scott) five places up on trials runner-up Nibret Melak who was nowhere near his 12:54.22 Hengelo form with 13:45.81.

Milkesa Menghesa made the final as a fastest loser but was only 10th as Ethiopia finished outside the medals for the first time since 1996.

Women’s 1500m
Freweyni Hailu Gebreezibiher finished out of the medals but unlike many of her team-mates ran up to expectation finishing a few seconds down on a quality top three of Faith Kipyegon, Laura Muir and Hassan. She ran a solid 62.60 last lap off a fast pace and showing her consistency this was her fourth run in the 3:56.28 to 3:57.60 range of the summer even if it was the slowest of the four.

Women’s marathon
After a gold and a bronze in the previous two Games, a fourth place for 2:18:30 performer Roja Dereze was disappointing though she was well beaten by unheralded bronze medallist Molly Seidel by almost a minute after losing contact in the last 10km.

She fared much better though than Birhane Dibaba and Zeinaba Yimer who both dropped out and she was the only one of six Ethiopians to finish a marathon in Japan.

Women’s 10,000m
With the world record-holder at both 5000m and 10,000m, there were big hopes for Letesenbet Gidey who was up against a clearly fatigued 5000m champion Hassan.

After a steady start, Gidey ran a blistering 14:45.3 5000m from 3000m to 8000m on a very hot day but couldn’t shift Hassan and more surprisingly another Ethiopian-born athlete Kalkidan Gezahegne who was representing Bahrain.

She then made little effort up to the bell before a half-hearted kick but was blown away in the last 100m by Hassan who took six seconds out of her as she barely walked across the line.

Men’s 1500m
No Ethiopian made the final with Teddese Lemi seventh in his semi final in 3:34.81. He won the trials in 3:31.90.

Men’s marathon
For a nation who won three successive golds between 1960 to 1968 – including of course Abebe Bikila in Tokyo in 1964 and again in 2000 – three drop outs was a major disappointment and ended a mediocre Games that had started so well.

They fielded three top runners – world champion Lelisa Desisa (2:04:45 PB), Sisay Lemma (2:03:36 PB) and London winner Shura Kitata (2:04:49) and only one made it to 25km (Desisa) and his last split was at 30km when he was back in 21st.

Ethiopia won a 10,000m gold and 3000m steeplechase silver for the men and the women won two bronzes – one each at 5000m and 10,000m. This is the first Games, Ethiopia have failed to win a women’s gold since 1988.
1992: Derartu Tulu (10,000m)
1996: Fatuma Roba (marathon)
2000: Derartu Tulu (10,000m)
2004: Meseret Defar (5000m)
2008: Tirunesh Dibaba (5000m & 10,000m)
2012: Meseret Defar (5000m), Tirunesh Dibaba (10,000m), Tiki Gelana (marathon)
2016: Almaz Ayana (10,000m)

Their junior athletes fared better in the World Junior Championships than they did in the Olympics but they were outperformed by Kenya.

In next year’s World Championships, I would expect Ethiopia to win a lot more medals than they managed in Tokyo with the less humid conditions of Oregon proving more favourable to them and with plenty of quality athletes improving in their early 20s.

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