Updated 20 March 2013
Imane Merga, Ethiopia (5000m, 10,000m, Cross Country)
Born: 15 October, 1988, Tulu Bolo
Coach: Hussein Shibo
On the eve of 2011 World Cross Country championships, Imane Mega was not a big name even in Ethiopia, however, he became a surprising figure just after the 12km senior race that he won in a commanding manner. He was considered as a valiant soldier in his country at the time as somehow he cancelled the memory of the previous disastrous World Cross campaign, where Ethiopia managed to take home only one individual medal (a bronze for Meselech Melkamu), with a good result in Punta Umbria, Spain.
This time around Imane is a much more experienced athlete compared to many elite ones who are prepared to grasp the medals the coming Sunday at the World Cross Country Championships in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz. Expectations and the pressure coming out of the big responsibility of defending the title are haunting him.
Imane, whose father’s name Merga is sometimes mistakenly written as Merge or Marga, was born in Tulu Bolo, in Oromia region, which has produced most of the country’s stars for many decades. He came to the athletics scene after being impressed by the achievements of the great Haile Gebrselassie, the two times Olympic 10,000m champion and of Kenenisa Bekele, the current 5000m and 10,000m World record holder.Training and commitment, hand in hand with the pursuit of his education at Fitawrari Habte-Giorgis school, gave Imane, then a seventh grade student at the age of 16, an immediate fruit of success when he became a member of Oromia team.
In the year 2006, during the Ethiopian Championships held in Addis Ababa Stadium, the youngster took two silver medals in 5000m and 10,000m in regional competition. Among the Addis Ababa clubs that are competing to attract new and deeply talented athletes, Defence was lucky to convince and recruit Imane in the same year.
The training conducted at the Defence club clearly proved to what extent Imane was potentially strong, when he earned his place in the Ethiopian contingent for the 2007 World Cross Country Championships to be held in Mombasa, Kenya. At the National Cross Country Championships held in Jan Meda race course in Addis Ababa on 25 February, Imane finished just outside the medals, in forth position. Considering his experience, age and the level of the championships, it was not a foolish reaction to see Imane and his club officials celebrating. He was only outpaced by more experienced opponents Ibrahim Jeilan of Muger, his team mate Habtamu Fekadu (23:10.66) and Demssew Tsega of St. George who took gold, silver and bronze respectively.
At the World Cross the following month, the scorching and draining weather in Mombasa demolished the anticipated result of the more high profile Ethiopian athletes, but Imane was able to withstand all the pressure and conditions to finish the junior race in seventh position.
“The weather was so distractive for me and the rest of our team that, to everybody’s surprise; I was not in the right mental condition to remember my result and what had happened in the running field at the time, “Imane said. He believes if the cross race had been staged in a different place, more suitable for athletes, his and his compatriots’ results would have improved dramatically.
After Mombasa, Imane had only one other international track race, at the African Junior Championships, held in August in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), where he finished third in 10,000m following Kenyan Mathew Kisorio (29:34.96) and his team mate Hunegnaw Mesfin (30:02.17) and reaching the finishing line in a promising time of 30:12.03.
At the end of the year, he registered two wins in as many European cross events, in Leffrinckoucke and Choisy le Roi, France.
Imane is last child of Ato Merga Dida, (a farmer) and Weizero Mulu Ayele (a house wife) whom he lost six and four years ago respectively. Their death affected his athletics commitment for some months, including being withdrawn from the Ethiopian Team for the 2008 World Cross in Edinburgh, Great Britain, that snatched its first ever sweep of all individual golds. “It was a very bad time for me, especially when I lost my mother; my grief was so deep and I had to abandon training,” he remembers vividly.
However, overcoming personal tragedy, later in 2008 Imane produced a tremendous leap in his achievements. In the space of one week at the beginning of June, he first improved his 5000m personal best (13:33.52, registered in Malmö, Sweden, in 2007) by a margin of more than 24 seconds at the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava, where he finished the race in 13:08.20 (fifth). Then in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, France, he took first place in 27:33.53 to improve his 10,000m best.
The marks, though still far from the elite, allowed him to break the top 50 that year in both events (28th and 40th respectively) and, considering this short time in the sport, started to earn him some respect.
He was unable however to continue his progress the following month, finishing a disappointing 16th in a very slow 13:49.17 at his Golden League debut in Rome.
He returned to Europe in winter for a successful cross country campaign, defending his title in Leffrinckoucke (29 Nov) before slating another victory (6 Dec) in Aranda de Duero, Portugal. At the end of the month, he celebrated St. Sylvester with a win in his road debut at 10km (29:27) in Amadora, Portugal.
Just a few days later, he ushered in 2009 with another cross country victory in Antrim, Northern Ireland, before placing fourth in Elgóibar, Spain.
Another successful track season was to follow that summer for Imane Merga, as he began to achieve what he strived for in the global athletics arena. He first lowered his 5000m PB to 13:04.68 in New York (30 May) before breaking the 13 minute barrier in Rome with 12:59.75 (10 July). His most striking achievement was however registered at the World Championships in Berlin, where he stunned his opponents by crossing the finish line in 27:15.94 for fourth place, shattering his PB by over seventeen seconds.
Winner Kenenisa Bekele, who broke the Championship record to take the tape in 26:46.31, proved formidable, but given his lack of championships experience, Merga’s result behind Eritrea’s silver medallist Zersenay Tadese (26:50.12), one of the most experienced runners of his time, and Kenyan bronze medallist Moses Masai (26:57.39), was outstanding.
Imane continued to shine after the world event, again improving his 5000m PB to 12:55.66 in the Brussels Golden League meeting, placing a close second to Kenenisa Bekele (12:55.31). Imane Merga’s Brussels mark earned him the third spot in the 2009 World lists at the distance, and together with his World Championships PB at 10,000m (tenth mark of the season) confirmed his new-found standing among the best long distance athletes.
His growth was further confirmed ten days later when, at the final edition of the World Athletics Final in Thessaloniki, Greece, he stunned ten Kenyans to take gold (13:29.75) ahead of them. The Ethiopian youngster again took to cross country and road races at the end of the year, posting his third consecutive win in the Cross de l’Acier in Leffrinckoucke, successfully defending his cross title in Aranda de Duero and improving his 10km PB to 28:37 in Houilles, France.
In 2010, Imane, continued to progress in his bid to be among the strongest figures in middle and long distance running and posted two victories (Oslo and Rome) and three third place finishes (Doha, Eugene and Gateshead).
At the African Athletics Championships in Kenya, Nairobi, unlike at the 2007 World Cross in Mombasa, the weather conditions were convenient for all Africans to extend their full power to hunt medals, but still Imane and many Ethiopians performed far below expectations. In the 5000m final, he could only manage to finish fifth (13:41.98 ) following the three medal winning Kenyans, Edwin Soy (13:30.46 ), Vincent Yator (13:30.53) and Mark Kiptoo (13:32.45 ) and fourth place finisher, Ugandan Moses Kipsiro (13:39.80).
Leaving the African Championships memory behind, Imane, magnificently marked fast times in his next two outings. First he improved his personal best to 12:53.58 while finishing third in Stockholm and then placed second in the Diamond League final in Zürich with another good time of 12:56.34. While Tariku Bekele won the race that night, the bigger prize went to Imane Merga, who was able to maintain the lead that he had in the Diamond League Race, concluding his successful campaign among the winners, and glorified with a glittering trophy and lucky to share in the prize money allocated for the winners.
The 2010 Continental Cup in Croatia, where he represented Africa in 5000m, was not a success as his fans wished, as he finished fifth in a very slow 14:00.53 and 2.30 second behind the winner Bernard Lagat (13:58.23) of the United States.
Imane however concluded the year with two uplifting road race wins in the last week of December. He first took the Houilles 10km crown, edging former World record holder and Beijing Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Micah Kogo in a PB 27.47 (to 27.48 for the Kenyan). Six days later, at the traditional end-of-season Boclassic St. Silvester race in Bolzano, he managed to stand the even stiffer challenge posed by Great Britain’s Somali-born Mo Farah, as both finished the race in 28:33 and relegated Kenyan Edwin Soi to a distant third (28:42).
In 2011, the multi-talented Imane Merga started his chase for glory in the cross country. At the Jan Meda Cross Country Championships and trials for the world event (20 February), he took part in the senior 12km race for the first time and snatched the silver medal behind another 22-year-old, surprise winner Hunegnaw Mesfin, who comfortably won the race, and secured a spot in the Ethiopian Contingent for World Cross.
His success in Punta Umbria made him the third Ethiopian winner in four years (after Kenenisa Bekele’s last title in 2008 and Gebregziabher Gebremariam in 2009) and heralded an excellent year for Imane.
He started the track season with a resounding victory in the Rome Diamond League meeting (12:54.21) and followed it up with another win in Eugene, with two more podium finished in Lausanne and Birmingham, making him a possible medal contender in the World Championships.
Imane did not disappoint expectations, as he attained his first ever bronze medal at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea in the 10,000m (27:19.14) following his team partner Ibrahim Jeilan who took gold in a time 27:13.81 and Great Britain’s number one distance athlete Mo Farah (27:14.07).
However, it was painful for Imane three days later to have to hand his bronze medal at 5000m - which he had already been presented on the podium - to his team mate Dejen Gebremeskel due to disqualification for stepping on the curb.
His disappointment was eased in the Diamond League final in Brussels, where the win also assured him victory in the Diamond League Race for 5000m.
Though, 2012 was not a good year in general for Imane, the blink of a comeback had been seen at the end of the year. The gold medal in highly contested at BOclassic Silvesterlauf 10km race helped him to avoid the haunting memory of being out of London Olympic Team due to injury and a downturn in performance. His finishing speed was seen when the deserved win came after he outpaced his country’s young and promising athlete, Muktar Edris, by a narrow margin. The two athletes finished the race at the same time (29:13).
In much of the 2012 athletics events, the pain of defeat had been a lot for Imane. Out of 7 races on the track and roads, he had only two times stood on the medal podium with bronze medals. One of the medals is worth mentioning, as he succeeded in the Great North Run in his debut half marathon (59:56). In the rest of the races his best mark are 7th positions – in the Bruxelles Memorial Van Damme 10,000m and San Juan World's Best 10K, where he clocked 27:14.02 and 28:40 respectively, while he could not, even, finished 5000m race at the Paris Diamond League Meeting .
As he heads to Bydgoszcz to defend his 2011 crown the road to achieving the gold medal might not be easy for Imane, as this year Ethiopian trials were the source of worry for his ardent supporters, who saw him dropping out of 12km senior race. “After dropping out with a feeling of pain in my leg, I did not expect my inclusion in the team,” he said.
The Ethiopian Athletics Federation decision to include Imane in its World Cross Country Team is associated with the two victories in his last outings of 2012, in Spain, at the Cross International de Atapuerca in November and in Italy, at the BOclassic Silvesterlauf on 31 December.
Now Imane is confident of defending his title. His worry is not directed at his opponents but the course itself. “I prepared very well and I am in the right condition as two years ago, even better,” he stated. ”My little worry is the lack of the knowledge how the course looks like,” he added.
According to Imane, the Cross Country Team trained by Dr. Yilma Berta is strong to the extent of snatching the team title usually dominated by Kenyans.
“I do not have a special athlete to fear in my list. Almost all are new. I have seen one or two strong Kenyans, Ethiopians are also strong and we have a good possibility of snatching the team title,” said Imane.
Imane is married to Metadel Gashaw and they have two sons, aged two years and 8 months. Metadel is a diploma graduate of pharmacy from government College in Harar, a world heritage city in the eastern part of Ethiopia. Athletics is not only special for Imane but also for Metadel, as she was running before giving birth nationally to get good result in 1500m and post her name up high.
3000m: 7:51.24 (2009)
5000m: 12:53.58 (2010)
10,000m: 26:48.35 (2011)
10km: 27:47 (2010)
Half Marathon: 59:56 (2012)
3000m: 2008 - 7:53.62; 2009- 7:51.24
5000m: 2007 - 13:33.52; 2008 - 13:08.20; 2009-12:55.66; 2010- 12:53.58; 2011-12:54.21; 2012-12:59. 77
10,000m: 2007 - 30:12.03; 2008 - 27:33.53; 2009 - 27:15.94; 2011-26:48.35; 2012-27:14.02
10 km: 2010- 27:47; 2011- 28:18; 2012- 28:40
Half Marathon: 2012-59:56
2007 7th World Cross Country Championships (junior race)
2007 3rd African Junior Championships (10,000m)
2009 4th World Championships (10,000m)
2009 1st World Athletics Final (5000m)
2010 5th African Championships
2010 5th Continental Cup (5000m)
2011 1st World Cross Country Championships (12km)
2011 3rd World Athletics Championships (10,000m)
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, but is mandatory on all new Ethiopian passports.)
Prepared by Tamiru Woldemichael for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2010-2013.