By Zecharias Zelalem
By the end of day two at the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships, Ethiopian athletics fans were relishing in the glory of their country’s gold and silver medals in the women’s 10,000 meter final. Olympic champion Almaz Ayana has stolen the headlines after bolting away from the field of runners with some 5,000 meters to go and winning the race virtually unopposed. “She destroyed the competition” is how most journalists have described it. Tirunesh Dibaba’s coming in second and securing Ethiopia’s ownership of the podium added a cherry to the cake and even temporarily put Ethiopia atop the global medal standings.
But prior to those scenes of Ethiopian glory, Ethiopian athletics fans were left with their hands on their heads after Tirunesh’s younger sister Genzebe Dibaba fumbled what should have been a routine 1,500 meter semifinal heat. In the first of two semifinals, Ethiopia represented by Genzebe and Gudaf Tsegay, suffered a blow early on when with barely a lap into the race, Gudaf collapsed to the track after appearing to trip over or collide with Kenyan runner Faith Kipyegon. Gudaf had run a decent quarterfinal heat leading for much of the way before settling for fourth. She had dark horse hopes of a podium finish. Immediately after falling, she pulled herself up and tried to chase after the group, reminiscent to what the likes of Etenesh Diro and Tiki Gelana have done in recent years. Sadly for her, the gap of some thirty meters was in excess of what she could make up. Grimacing and in obvious distress at having her dream crushed, she half heartedly laboured through the last two laps.
With the final lap beckoning, it was anyone’s race. Genzebe and Kipyegon led the way at a steady pace, with the likes of Caster Semenya and Briton Laura Muir tailing them. With the top five guaranteed of a spot in the final, all seemed ship shape for the defending world champion. But with some five hundred meters or so to go, she appeared to backpedal and even stumble in her stride. It wasn’t clear, from first glance Genzebe may have appeared to have suffered a slight muscle pull. But by the time she managed to regain her composure about two seconds later, a host of runners had passed her and she was unwittingly caged by these advancing runners with no escape route. Kipyegon won the race followed closely behind by Muir and Semenya, the Ethiopian, the defending world champion and world record holder couldn’t do better than sixth. It was an absolute shocker. At that moment her place in the final was hanging by a thread. Failing to cruise through her heat, Ethiopian athletics fans would now nervously watch and wait for the second heat, hoping that her finishing time would be good for her to reach the final as one of the fastest losers. While she waited at the finish line with a look of obvious anguish on her face, Gudaf Tsegay, who had fallen earlier, crossed the line, finishing last. She left the track in tears.
The second heat took on a whole new meaning of its own, as the potential of the race spelling the end of Genzebe’s 1,500 meter hopes. Besu Sado, ninth place finisher at the Olympics last year would not reach the final this time round, finishing eleventh. The race was won by Ethiopian born Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan and Eritrean born Swede Meraf Bahta came in second. Genzebe meanwhile, survived by the skin of her teeth to qualify for the finals by her time.
According to journalist Tadele Assefa, the Ethiopian Athletics Federation immediately lodged a request with the IAAF to review the incident that led to Gudaf Tsegay falling. A couple hours later the same journalist stated on local radio show Tadias Addis that the IAAF had cleared everyone of obstruction, meaning no one would be penalized. Genzebe, who teetered on the brink of elimination today, will head into the final as the sole Ethiopian medal hope on Monday.
In the men’s 800m quarterfinal heats, Ethiopian Mohammed Aman, a world champion in 2013 arrived in London with the hopes of pulling of performances that could go some way to restoring his reputation as a feared competitor. After a semifinal horror show in Rio and an obstruction charge disqualifying him in Beijing 2015, he set out to put two mediocre years behind him. His start however, could have been described as mediocre. He came out of the starter’s blocks slower than everyone else and thus trailed the field, running behind six of the seven runners for most of the first lap. American Donavan Brazier led the race and pretty much sealed his top three automatic qualifier position after a lap, but Mohammed Aman struggled to make a move and by the bell’s ring was still in sixth and in danger of quarterfinal elimination. It would have been the worst world championships appearance of his career.
Mohammed Aman left it incredibly late. With about sixty meters to go, Mohammed Aman summoned the strength to vault past Spaniard Daniel Andujar, Pole Marcin Lewandowski and finally Guy Learmonth of Britain to finish second behind Brazier and book his spot in the semifinal. After a rather calamitous showing in which he appeared to be done and dusted, the Ethiopian managed to finish strongly clocking 1:45.81 and leap from sixth to second with less than a lap to go. Once again, a real scare that ended in relief for Ethiopian athletics fans. Mohammed Aman must hope today’s run has gotten the rust out of his system, as the men’s 800m semifinals is barely twenty four hours later and he will face off with Donald Brazier again tomorrow in a bid to reach his first world championship final since 2013.