Updated 10 August 2012
DEJEN Gebremeskel, Ethiopia (3000m, 5000m)
Born: 24 November 1989, Gulo Mekeda, near Adigrat, Tigray region, Ethiopia
Lives: Addis Ababa
Club: Commercial Bank
Manager: Mark Wetmore
Coach: Yilma Berta, Hussein Shibo
Dejen Gebremeskel is best remembered for his Boston indoor 3000m victory in 2011, in which his shoe came off in the first lap but he ran the entire race in one shoe and defeated a strong field. That victory earned greater significance when the man he beat, Great Britain’s Mo Farah, went on to be almost unstoppable in 2011. Prior to the Daegu World Championships 10,000m where he took silver, the Boston 3000m was Farah’s only defeat in 2011.
In the Daegu 5000m, Farah got the gold as anticipated but, behind former World champion Bernard Lagat of the US who took silver, was Dejen with the bronze. This year, the Ethiopian is looking to top both Farah and Lagat and the rest of the field in the London Olympic 5000m, and his 2012 year suggests he may well do so.
Dejen grew up in the rural Gulo Makeda district of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, near the town of Adigrat. He ran as a student representing his school and later the district and zone in competitions at Welwalo Stadium in Adigrat, a venue associated with soccer games rather than its dirt track. Dejen came to Addis Ababa representing Tigray and after successful races there, joined the Banks athletics club, whose members include World indoor champion Meseret Defar and Dejen’s fellow Tigray native Gebregziabher Gebremariam, the 2010 New York City marathon champion, who gave the young Dejen advice. (The former Ethiopian Banks or simply “Banks” club is now known as the Commercial Bank club.)
In his first year of international competition, Dejen placed sixth over 5000m in 13:21.05 in Brasschaat, Belgium and was selected for the 2007 African Junior Championships in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where he earned a silver medal in 14:14.96 behind Kenyan Mathew Kisorio.
Dejen was fourth in the 2008 cross country nationals junior race behind Ibrahim Jeilan, Ayele Abshero and Hunegnaw Mesfin. Ibrahim went on to win the corresponding race at the Edinburgh World Championships, where Dejen was 18th. Dejen ran 13:08.96 for 5000m behind Ayele in Carson, California, and took bronze at the 2008 Bydgoszcz World Junior Championships behind Ethiopian Abraham Cherkos Feleke and Kisorio.
The next three years, Dejen made significant breakthroughs each season. In 2009, he won the 5000m in Carson in 13:16.52 ahead of Alastair Cragg before running the New York Grand Prix 3000m against a stellar field. “I didn’t have a fast time,” said Dejen, who knew he was outmatched by then-reigning World Champion Bernard Lagat and Kenyan Micah Kogo, who had previously run 13:00.07. Dejen chased after them anyway, almost to the line. He was rewarded with a 3rd place finish in 13:03.13, behind Kogo’s 13:02.90 and Lagat’s 13:03.06, beating Ethiopians Imane Merga and Gebregziabher. “It was my best time and it was very encouraging,” said Dejen, who then took fourth in London behind Farah the following month.
Several of Dejen’s major accomplishments have come in races with the Kenyan-born Lagat, whose successful American record attempt in the indoor 5000m in Boston on 6 February 2010 led his runner-up Dejen to a 13:11.78 PB behind the winner’s 13:11.50. After a 7:45.42 second place in Birmingham ahead of Brimin Kipruto, Dejen made his first senior World Championships team headed to the Doha Indoors, where he was second in his heat, but only 10th in the final.
Except for that race, Dejen placed second in every competition in 2010, including the Carlsbad 5000 road race won by Eliud Kipchoge; the Eugene Diamond League Pre Classic 5000m where Tariku Bekele won and Dejen ran his first sub-13 clocking of 12:59.30 to beat eventual 2010 Diamond Trophy winner Imane and Kipchoge; and the Stockholm DL DN Galan 5000 where Dejen ran 12:53.56 behind Mark Kiptoo and ahead of Imane and Kipchoge.
Next came the famous 5 February 2011 Boston one-shoe run. Dejen hoped to chase the meet record of 7:34.50 and lined up alongside the favored double European champion Farah and Kenyan Nixon Chepseba, but shortly after the start, one of Dejen’s shoes came off. He kept on running, in one shoe and one sock, staying with the leaders and kicking at the bell. Dejen took the victory in 7:35.37 to the Briton’s 7:35.81. Ethiopian fans compared Dejen to barefoot 1960 Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila and feted him during an intermission at a concert that evening by Ethiopian international recording artist Aster Aweke. Back home, Dejen was greeted by praise from all quarters. “Family, athletes, coaches, everybody,” he said. “They told me ‘You have done what Abebe did’.”
Dejen ran the World’s Best 10K in Puerto Rico on 27 February and placed 2nd to Sammy Kitwara in 27:45. “I went from running 5000m races to that so I was very happy,” said Dejen, who beat compatriot Lelisa Desisa and Kenyans Leonard Patrick Komon, Joseph Ebuya and Moses Masai. Returning to the Carlsbad 5000 where he had lost to Kipchoge a year earlier, Dejen turned the tables on the Kenyan, winning in 13:11.
In a fast Rome Diamond League 5000 won by Imane in a then-world leading 12:54.21, Dejen took 4th in a season best 12:55.89, beating Ethiopian Sileshi Sihine, Kenyans Mark Kiptoo, Thomas Longosiwa and Ugandan Moses Kipsiro. That finish secured Dejen’s selection to the Ethiopian Daegu team, and he remained the second-fastest in the nation for 2011.
Dejen has a core group of athletes he works with on the national team, including Imane, Tariku, Hunegnaw Mesfin and Abera Kuma, though prior to championship preparation periods, he works alone a good deal of the time as well. “We work on the track a few times a week,” said Dejen. “The remaining days we train in the woods individually.”
Another key race in Dejen’s career featuring Lagat was the Diamond League 5000m on 11 June at New York’s Randall’s Island, where Dejen headed with Tariku. “From the beginning, if there had been anyone who took the pace out hard, I planned to follow whoever was there, but because of the rain and wind, a fast time wasn’t possible,” said Dejen, who stayed tucked in the pack. “At the bell, Tariku and I kicked.” Lagat gave chase, passing Tariku and gaining on but not catching Dejen, who won in 13:05.22 to the American’s 13:05.46. Others defeated in that race include Kenyans Isiah Koech, Edwin Soi and Mike Kigen.
“I felt very happy,” said Dejen, whose win placed him in a tie with compatriots Imane and Yenew Alamirew in the early lead of the Diamond race. But it was Farah who emerged thoroughly dominant throughout the season remaining undefeated on the European circuit, including taking a 12:53.11 world leading victory in the Monaco DL in July after topping the year’s 10,000m list earlier in Eugene.
Dejen’s last race before Daegu was the Lausanne 5000m on 30 June, won by Kenyan Vincent Chepkok, where Dejen was fifth. “I had a stitch,” said Dejen, whose main goal after that was preparing in Addis Ababa for Daegu. “I hope to be a medalist,” he said.
Farah took silver behind surprise victor Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia in the World Championships 10,000m, but remained a heavy favorite in the 5000m. In a final that included the also favored 2007 World 1500 and 5000 Champion Lagat, as well as Imane, Abera, Longosiwa, Koech, Kipchoge and American Galen Rupp, Dejen ran conservatively for much of the race. “I told myself I had to move up with two laps remaining,” he said, and started doing just that, before moving into the lead after the bell, with Farah, Imane, Lagat and Longosiwa in pursuit. Dejen and Farah ran stride for stride on the backstretch before the Briton prevailed on the final turn, as did the fast-finishing Lagat and Imane on the homestraight, leaving Dejen just out of the medals, until Imane was disqualified for stepping in the infield. “Even if it isn’t gold, bronze at the World Championships is something special,” said Dejen.
He aimed to defend his Boston indoor 3000m title on 4 February 2012 and improve on his 7:35.37 there, but was outkicked by World Junior 1500m Champion Caleb Ndiku of Kenya, though he held off Ndiku’s Daegu 1500m silver medalist compatriot Silas Kiplagat. “It wasn’t quite as I had expected,” said Dejen, who ran 7:38.97 to Ndiku’s 7:38.29. “I had wanted it to be faster because these guys are 1500m runners.”
That finish left Dejen in reach of a World Indoor Championships berth. “I have the qualifying time,” said Dejen. “But there is Tariku and one or two other guys also going for it.” The 2011 world indoor leader Yenew Alamirew (and Tariku in an intermediate clocking enroute to a two-mile finish) had run faster by mid-February, with season best times being the deciding factor in selections for the Ethiopian team. But Dejen took care of that in Stockholm on 23 February, when he ran 7:34.14 to surpass Tariku on the year list. In the Swedish city, Dejen followed Koech’s final 100m kick to victory to finish second, beating 2012 world leader Augustine Choge, Ndiku, Longosiwa and Tariku. Dejen joined Yenew, whose 7:31.23 in Karlsruhe is the third-fastest of the year, on the Ethiopian Istanbul 3000m team.
With the duo of Farah and Lagat in the field along with the year’s sub-7:30 runners Choge and Soi of Kenya, Dejen was again challenging more favored contenders. But he did not look as sharp in his races in Turkey and kept reaching for his nose, and wound up fifth in the final, all of which became clear when he later explained, “I had a bit of a cold. It was after I returned to Addis Ababa that I felt better. I had hoped to make the podium.”
Dejen nevertheless found a silver lining in his World Indoors preparation and experience when he said he felt it helped him run fast in his next race, where he defended his Carlsbad 5000 title over the new Madrid 10km champion Hagos Gebrhiwet of Ethiopia and 2010 Carlsbad champion and former World 5000 champion Kipchoge. “The time was very good,” said Dejen after clocking 13:11 and matching his 2011 winning time, despite less than favourable conditions. “It was windy,” he added. “Kipchoge was leading and I made a move with 1km remaining.” Hagos placed second in 13.14, setting a World junior best.
Dejen has been undefeated in three races this outdoor season, and the track meets where he and several compatriots pursued fast clockings in order to be selected for the London Olympics produced two of the year’s three fastest 5000 races.
In Oslo on 7 June, Dejen ran a fast last lap to finish in 12:58.92, a clocking bettered at the time only by a trio led by World Champion Mo Farah in Eugene days earlier (12:56.98). In Dejen’s wake was a star-studded list of names: Hagos (12:58.99), Imane (12:59.77), Tariku (13:00.41) and Kenenisa (13:00.54), Kipsiro, Sileshi Sihine, Emmanuel Bett, Abera, Lucas Rotich and Teklemariam Medhin.
Season bests being the chief selection criterion for London, that meant that unless faster times were run by others in the subsequent month, the Olympic team would be Dejen, Hagos and Imane, with Kenenisa, making his way back from injury-plagued years, not guaranteed to defend his Beijing title. But Kenenisa, Dejen and others had already been entered in the Paris Diamond League 5000 on 6 July.
“Today is the last day to be selected for the Ethiopian Olympic team,” said Dejen in Paris, where Kenenisa ran a 2012 season best in 12:55.79, but the line-up at the front of the race remained the same as in Oslo, with Dejen and Hagos in front, and the Bekele brothers in 4th and 5th among Ethiopians. Yenew was the third Ethiopian this time, while in the race overall, Dejen had defeated Kenyans Koech, Longosiwa, and John Kipkoech, all of whom ran under 12:50, with the Bekeles, Kipchoge, Soi and Masai running under 13:00.
“I had already won in Oslo, but I wanted a better time and to win, to be in even better position to be selected,” said Dejen, who accomplished all his goals in spectacular fashion, for he not only bettered his own 2012 best, but set the world’s fastest time of the year (and fifth best of all-time), clocking 12:46.81, following an under 55-second bell lap duel with Hagos (who with 12:47.53 set a World Junior record). In fact, as Dejen, after first modestly stating, “I ran a personal best,” later pointed out, “It’s the Diamond League record, it’s the world-leading time, and not just from this year, but it’s faster than anyone has run in the past four years.” Actually, 2007 was the last time 12:50 was broken, but no one has run faster than Dejen since 2005, when Kenenisa did, as in 2004 when he set the World record, and Kipchoge in 2004.
“I was very surprised,” added Dejen, who had thought he might run a sub-12:55 world lead. “I didn’t expect a time like that. I’m very pleased, especially considering it’s just before the Olympics.”
Not only was the Ethiopian team clearly decided in that race, but the man to beat in the event in London -- favored at least as much as Farah in some calculations and more in others – had been identified. Ethiopia named Dejen, Hagos and Yenew to the team, with Tariku focusing on the 10,000 and therefore 5th-placed Kenenisa the 5000 reserve.
In the London elimination round, Dejen was content to sit back in the pack, moving up a few places with two laps to go, into second behind London Olympic 1500 bronze medalist Abdelaati Iguider of Morocco with a lap to go and then into the lead with Yenew in the last lap, winning the heat in 13:15.15 – the fastest ever in an opening round in Olympic history. “I am the fastest 5000m runner of the season, but the Olympic Games is different,” said Dejen afterwards. “My target is winning the gold medal.”
After taking bronze in Daegu and missing out on the medals in Istanbul, Dejen indeed seems primed for the top spot in London, where except for his countrymen who will all work together, the rest of the field including the new London 10,000 champion Farah will be out to try and stop him.
3000m: 7:51.02 (2009)
5000m: 12:46.81 (2012)
3000m: 7:34.14 (2012)
5000m: 13:11.78 (2010)
3000/5000: 2007 – -/13:21.05; 2008 – 13:08.96; 2009 – 7:51.02/13:03.13; 2010 – 7:44.26i/12:53.56; 2011 – -7:35.37i/13:11.78i, 12:55.89; 2012 – 7:34.14i/12:46.81.
2007 2nd African Junior Championships, Ouagadougou 5000m 14:14.06
2008 18th World Cross Country Championships, Edinburgh (junior race)
2008 3rd World Junior Championships, Bydgoszcz 5000m 13:13.97
2010 10th World Indoor Championships, Doha 3000m 7:48.69
2011 3rd World Championships, Daegu 5000m 13:23.92
2012 5th World Indoor Championships, Istanbul 3000m 7:42.60
Note on Ethiopian names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name only, or first and second name together, the second name being the father's first name.
(The grandfather’s first name is sometimes added as a third name, and is optional in much the same way that a Western middle name is frequently omitted; however, it is mandatory on all new Ethiopian passports.)
Prepared by Sabrina Yohannes for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2011-2012.