Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega outsprinted Ugandan pre-race favourite Joshua Cheptegei to claim the men’s Olympic 10 000m gold and the first track title of the Games on Friday.
Commonwealth champion Cheptegei, who finished sixth in the event in Rio before winning world silver in 2017 and gold in 2019, had set world records over the 5 000 and 10 000m on road and track in 2020.
But there was to be no gold in Tokyo as the 21-year-old Barega, the world 5000m silver medallist, timed his last-lap sprint to perfection to win in 27min 43.22sec.
Cheptegei claimed silver in 27:43.63 with teammate Jacob Kiplimo taking bronze in 27:43.88, cheered on by sparse pockets of Ugandan athletes in the otherwise empty 68 000-capacity Olympic Stadium deprived of spectators because of Covid-19 restrictions.
“I’m hopeful of achieving more in these Olympics,” said Barega.
To compensate for the lack of a crowd, he had sought solace in a flag he had been given in Ethiopia.
“It was very challenging to compete without spectators,” he said.
“But I was able to take a flag from home that meant a lot to me. When I was running I also imagined that the seats in the stadium were full of fans!”
Cheptegei said the silver was a double-edged sword.
“I have two feelings,” he said. “One is that I’m very happy to have won an Olympic silver medal today and I would say that this is really special for me as a world-record holder and as a world champion.
“But the other side of me is really not satisfied with the result because I came here expecting to win a gold.”
The race was marked by the absence of two-time defending champion Mo Farah, who failed to make the British team for Tokyo.
Cheptegei’s teammate Stephen Kissa ran ahead of the main pack for the opening six laps.
Barega and Kenyan Rhonex Kipruto then split to chase down Kissa, with Cheptegei content to sit in the middle of the bunched pack led by Kiplimo.
KISSA’S PACE TOO FAST
With 13 laps to go, the pack was back on Kissa’s tale, Kenya’s Weldon Langat pushing Cheptegei as the field started to split amid team-surging tactics aimed to cull those who cannot live with faster-paced intervals.
Kissa surged again, but Langat stuck with him, Cheptegei moving into third with 10 laps to run.
Kipruto then shot into the lead, Kissa pulling up with eight laps to race in sultry conditions, with temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
“It was a sacrifice for the team,” said Kissa. “We had a plan for me to go ahead to make it a fast race.
“I thought they were going to follow me but when I looked round they were not there.”
Cheptegei countered that he and Kiplimo soon realised they “were not going to run fast because it was really untypically humid and tough”.
“I had to relax. To run faster in these conditions is really challenging.
“In the first kilometre I saw that it was really too humid and too hot and I was saying that I need to reserve my energy for the last laps.”
Cheptegei eventually made his move with 2km to go.
Kenya’s Rodgers Kwemoi went shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ugandan and pushed the pace ahead of a pack now down to 11.
Canadian Mohammed Ahmed then bolted at the bell, taking with him the Ethiopian trio of Barega, world silver medallist Yomif Kejelcha and Berihu Aregawi, ahead of Cheptegei and Kiplimo.
Ahmed faltered as the east Africans forced the pace.
Barega, a long silver necklace bouncing on his chest and chin, hit the front with 200 metres to go.
Teeth gritted and eyes set on the big screen above the finish line, he refused to cede as first teammate Aregawi and then the Ugandan duo tried to reel him in.
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