Kicking away from a lead group of four with just over half a lap to go, Jemal Yimer Mekkonen cruised to victory in the 10,000m at the 21st edition of the African Athletics Championships which began today in Asaba, Nigeria.
Yimer bided his time in the early stages before finally making his decisive move on the final lap to cross the line, arms held wide, in 29:08.01.
“This wasn’t easy,” said Yimer, who was fourth at these championships two years ago and fifth over the distance at the World Championships last year. “There was a lot of competition from my teammates and the humidity made it difficult.”
The 21-year-old has kept busier on the roads this year than on the track, finishing a strong fourth at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in March and improving his lifetime best over that distance to 59:00 in February. But he's hasn't fully put his track ambitions behind him, finishing third in the 10,000m at his national championships in April.
“My secret is just to work tirelessly,” he said. “My wish now is continue winning gold medals.”
Time-wise, it was a modest performance, nearly two minutes slower than Kenneth Kipkemoi’s 27:19.74 championships record set in Porto-Novo, Benin, six years ago. But given the 28 C temperatures and humid conditions, along with unanticipated fatigue that followed several of his competitors to Asaba this morning, the times were never expected to be fast. But the racing, especially in the second half, was fierce. And that suited the near capacity crowd at the Stephen Keshi Memorial Stadium just fine.
After a lumbering 76-second opening lap, Yimer’s teammate Andamlak Belihu Berta decided to shake out the cobwebs by taking off midway through the second lap to open a massive gap on the rest of the field. They reeled him in less than two laps later with Kenyan Vincent Kipsang taking to the front.
Kipsang, the national champion over the distance, shared much of the leading over the next ten laps with Belihu, Ibrahim Ismael of Djibouti and Ali Mahamat of Chad also chipping in with the pacing chores. Little changed until the 16th lap when the field was finally reduced to six.
Transportation and logistical challenges in recent days forced a massive revision of the competition timetable, this morning reduced to just three events in total for the opening day to allow time for the last remaining athletes who were stranded in Lagos Airport --some for nearly three days-- to be transported the final 450 kilometres to the capital of Nigeria’s Delta State. That group included the Kenyan 10,000m trio of Kipsang, Josphat Bett and Kipsang Temoi, who finally arrived at their hotel just three hours before the gun sounded.
That wait took its toll.
Bett was the first to drop off the pace, leaving his teammates, the Ethiopian pair, Uganda’s Timothy Toroitoch and Awet Habte of Eritrea to duke it out in the late afternoon heat. That sextet remained largely intact until five laps remained, when Habte was the next to fall back. Three laps later, Temoi faded out of contention.
Kipsang continued to control the pace but was clearly labouring when the bell sounded. When Yimer made his break, Belihu and Toroitich followed. The last battle of the day witnessed the 19-year-old Belihu, who was tenth at the World Championships last year, hold off the Ugandan to secure an Ethiopian 1-2.
Belihu clocked 29:11.09, Toroitich 29:11.87. Kipsang was fourth in 29:14.52, 11 seconds ahead of Temoi, who held on for fifth.
100m action gets underway
The only other events on the abbreviated opening day timetable were the opening rounds of the men's and women's 100m. Few surprises emerged. Favourite Marie Josee Ta Lou was the fastest on the women's side with 11.25 while Ben Youssef Meite of Ivory Coast edged South African Simon Magakwe by a scant 0.01 in 10.41, the fastest on the men's. The loudest roar of the afternoon? When Nigerian Ogunlewe Adeseye blitzed to victory in the sixth heat.
Both finals will take place tomorrow afternoon, the women's at 14:55 local and men's at 15:10.
Champions will also be crowned in the shot put, discus, and long jump on the men's side and the hammer throw, pole vault, 100m hurdles and 5000m on the women's.
Day two begins with the men's decathlon 100m at 9:00.
NOTE: Results link to follow when available.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF