He's only 22 years-old, but to Ethiopia's Ibrahim Jeilan his gold medal in last night's 10,000m was a long time coming.
Back in 2008, Jeilan began to demonstrate his true class. He won the junior title at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland, and clocked 27:13.85 in a special 10,000m race at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, beaten only by Kenenisa Bekele. Jeilan thought that performance was good enough to put him on Ethiopia's team for the Beijing Olympic Games. Instead, he was selected for the IAAF World Junior Championships team in Bydgoszcz, Poland. He would win the bronze medal there, but that wasn't the same as running in the Olympics.
"For the last two years I was in the national team, but they didn't let me go to Olympic Games," Jeilan explained last night. "I felt very angry at the time."
Jeilan also thought he should have been selected for the 2009 IAAF World Championships the following year, but was again passed over. He ended up running road races in America that summer, instead.
"So, I was very angry I couldn't (run in Berlin)," Jeilan said. "So, I go to Japan to prepare well there."
Jeilan, who comes from Ethiopia's Bale district, discussed his situation with his manager, Biruk Bekele. They decided that moving him to the Japanese corporate team system would benefit him with a change of scenery, rigorous training, and a stable income. Bekele struck a deal with the Honda team, and in early 2010, Jeilan moved to Japan and settled in Saitama, near Tokyo.
On the Honda team, Jeilan ran 27:12.43 for 10,000m in Yokohama in 2010 (the #6 mark in the world for the year), and won his section in the East Japan Corporate Ekiden. But he really turned heads in the all-important New Year's Ekiden in Maebashi, which is broadcast nationally on live television and is critical for corporate teams. Jeilan ran in the second section reserved for foreign athletes, which is always the most competitive. He clocked 22:14 for 8.3 kilometers, a performance which foreshadowed his 27:09.02 season's best in Kitami the following June. That mark, the third fastest by an Ethiopian this year, was good enough to get him selected for the Daegu squad.
Still a bachelor, Jeilan had no idea that he would be following in the footsteps of another African World champion. In 2001 in Edmonton, Canada, Kenyan Charles Kamathi was the surprise winner of the 10,000m. Like Jeilan, he was also a "gaijin" (foreigner) in the Japanese system for the Fujitsu team.
"I prepare well, I train well," Jeilan said in English (he also speaks Japanese and Amharic). "So, I qualify this year. I concentrate in this race. I come first."
Jeilan was particularly thrilled that he beat Mo Farah, this season's hottest distance runner who was undefeated in 2011 until last night. Jeilan came up on Farah in the final 150 meters, then passed him in the final 20 meters as both men sprinted all-out. He knew beating Farah would be difficult.
"We all know Mohamed Farah is very tough," Jeilan said, turning to Farah at last night's press conference. "I watch his race on television when he ran 10,000 in Eugene. He was very strong. But I know if I follow him, maybe I come first. Everybody is strong, but he's the strongest."
Farah admitted last night he had no idea who Jeilan was, but he won't soon forget him.
"I didn't have a clue about the guy," Farah said shaking his head. "I hadn't seen him, so I didn't know what he could do or what he was capable of."
Jeilan's manager Bekele, a man of few words, said he saw potential greatness in his client, and all he needed was the right environment for him to flourish.
"He's a very good runner," Bekele said simply. "He works hard. He eats good."
David Monti for the IAAF