Letesenbet Gidey and Joshua Cheptegei (© AFP / Getty)
In the countdown to the World Athletics Awards 2020, which will be held as a virtual event on 5 December, we’ll be taking a closer look at the five men and five women who were earlier this week confirmed as the finalists for the Athlete of the Year awards.
When Ethiopian distance runner Letesenbet Gidey won back-to-back world U20 cross country titles in 2015 and 2017 – a feat that had previously been achieved by just five other athletes – it was clear that the Ethiopian distance runner was a star in the making.
Fast forward three years to 2020 and Gidey has finally come of age, establishing herself as the fastest woman of all time over 5000m.
Like many athletes, hers was a brief season. It began on 14 August at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Monaco where she lined up for the 5000m alongside the reigning world champions over every distance from 1500m to 10,000m. Once the pacemakers had done their job, and with world steeplechase champion Beatrice Chepkoech starting to drift out of contention, Gidey moved to the front to dictate the race.
Sifan Hassan, the world 1500m and 10,000m champion, stepped off the track with 1000m to go while two-time world 5000m champion Hellen Obiri moved into the lead. Gidey regained the lead one lap later, but Obiri’s finishing kick proved too strong and Gidey had to settle for second place in 14:26.57, four seconds adrift of her Kenyan rival.
Gidey didn’t race again until the aptly named World Record Day in Valencia on 7 October where she was bidding to break the world 5000m record of 14:11.15 that had stood to her idol Tirunesh Dibaba for 12 years.
Gidey hadn’t won a race at that distance since 2016, but almost all of her recent losses had been in high-quality championship finals or Diamond League races in which she’d often be outkicked by the likes of Obiri or Hassan. But Gidey’s performance over 10,000m at the 2019 World Championships, where she covered the second half in 14:47 and the final kilometre in 2:44, gave a better indication of her ability to crank out a relentless pace when the going gets tough – a great quality to possess when attempting a world record.
Chepkoech was on pacing duties this time and she led through 3000m in 8:31.85 – several seconds ahead of world record pace. It was then down to Gidey to complete the task and, assisted by the Wavelight pacing technology, she managed to maintain her relentless tempo.
Closing with a pair of 67-second laps, Gidey crossed the finish line in 14:06.62, taking almost five seconds off the world record. Gidey became the third successive Ethiopian to hold the women’s 5000m world record after Meseret Defar and Dibaba.
“I have been dreaming about this (setting a world record) for six years,” said Gidey. “My next goal is to break the 10,000m world record.”
Joshua Cheptegei’s first race of 2020 – a world 5km record of 12:51 on the roads of Monaco on 16 February – set the tone for the rest of his year.
The 23-year-old Ugandan went on to break two more world records in 2020, setting new standards for the 5000m and 10,000m, before rounding out his season with a 59:21 clocking at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 on his debut at the distance.
During his season opener in Monaco, Cheptegei ran alone from the start and blitzed through the first kilometre in 2:31. His pace dropped only slightly during the middle section of the race and he charged through the finish line in 12:51 to take 27 seconds off the previous record.
“When my legs felt good during the race, I decided to really go for it,” he said.
Cheptegei returned to the principality six months later for his first track race of the year. Racing in the 5000m at the Herculis Wanda Diamond League meeting, Cheptegei had made no secret of his desire to break Kenenisa Bekele’s 16-year-old world record of 12:37.35.
Passing through 3000m in 7:35.2, Cheptegei’s pace was metronomic as he churned out consistent 61-second laps. He covered the final circuit in 60 seconds flat to stop the clock at 12:35.36, improving the world record by two seconds.
Cheptegei then turned his focus to the 10,000m – the distance at which he is world champion – and another world record attempt, this time in Valencia on 7 October. And once again, he succeeded.
With the help of pacemakers, Cheptegei reached the half-way point in 13:07.73. He was alone for the final 12 laps and the pace dropped slightly during the sixth kilometre, but, helped by wavelight pacing, he managed to get back on world record schedule.
Roared on by the few spectators and officials the Turia Stadium, Cheptegei crossed the line in 26:11.00, taking more than six seconds off Bekele’s world record.
“I was trying to remake history so that people will have something to enjoy,” he said. “Sport lovers of the world can have something to remember.”
Cheptegei wrapped up his 2020 campaign with an appearance at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020. Although he had never contested a half marathon before, his achievements leading up to the race led to him being touted as one of the medal favourites.
Racing just 10 days after his record-breaking run in Valencia, Cheptegei almost achieved a podium finish in Gdynia, eventually placing fourth in 59:21 – one of the fastest debuts in history and quicker than the winning time at all but three previous editions of the World Half.
He didn’t come away empty-handed, however, as Uganda scooped the team bronze medal.