Addis Ababa, EthiopiaAt the start of the session they were running for cover, by the end of the night they were dancing with joy. Torrential rain hit the first evening of the 16th African Athletics Championships here, scattering spectators as they sought shelter, but an Ethiopian sweep of the medals in the men’s 10,000m soon had the home crowd forgetting their soaking.
Even the absence of Kenenisa Bekele, who had been billed to compete right up until the eve of the championships, and a 35-minute delay caused by the weather, could not deny Ethiopia the perfect start to championships they are hosting for the first time. Bekele, the Olympic and world 10,000m champion, was apparently not ready to race one month after regaining his World Cross Country title in Edinburgh.
Bekele was replaced by Ibrahim Jeilan, the World junior 10,000m and cross country champion, who did a fine substitute’s job, taking second place, ahead of his compatriot, Eshetu Wondemu. But the star of the show was Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who ran away with the title over the last 4000m to win by 80 metres in 28:17.11.
The rain had stopped by the time the athletes came out for the start of this eagerly awaited clash between Ethiopia and Kenya. But it soon became clear that Kenya would become also-rans as Gebremariam, Jeilan and Wondemu took charge from the second lap. From that point on, Ethiopia controlled from the front. After three laps, only seven athletes remained in the lead group, three Ethiopians, three Kenyans and Cyriaqu Ndayikengurukiye, from Rwanda.
After four laps, though, Ndayikengurukiye began to drop back, leaving only John Korir, Bernard Sang and Julius Kiptoo to challenge home rule. Barely had two kilometres been run when a 10 metres gap appeared between the Ethiopians and the Kenyans. However, Korir and Sang managed to claw it back and a lead group of five remained in contention as they approached halfway.
Coming up to the 5000m mark, reached in 14:09.87, Gebremariam surged, dropping Sang. Over the next 600 metres, the tall figure of the eventual champion opened a lead of 10 metres and it grew to 70 metres with four laps remaining. By this time, the almost full 25,000 capacity stadium, seeing the gold medal safely in the bag, turned their attention to urging a medal sweep.
In particular, this meant encouraging Wondemu as, with the lap counter showing six to go, Korir came past him. By now both Gebremariam and Jeilan were too far into the distance for Korir to contemplate anything better than the bronze medal. But it proved only a short last trace of resistance from Kenya as Wondemu sat on Korir’s shoulder until they came down the home straight with just over two laps to go.
To deafening cheering in the grandstand, Wondemu burst past Korir, sealing the sweep some 800 metres before the end. Soon three Ethiopian flags were doing a lap of the track in celebration of home success in the first final of the championships. “It is a great honour to run in my country,” Gebremariam said. “The crown is for my people.”
The other two first-day finals yielded gold medals for Egypt. Marwa Ahmed Hussein won a fourth successive African Athletics Championships title in the women’s Hammer (62.26m) and Abdu Moaty Moustafa took the men’s Shot (18.06m).
The respective favourites for the 100 metres titles, Olusoji Fasuba and Damola Osayomi, both from Nigeria, reaffirmed their status with the fastest qualifying times from the semi-finals. Fasuba was way faster than the next man, recording 10.27, although Osayomi had to share her fastest time of the round (11.41) with Ghana’s Vida Anim.
David Powell for the IAAF