Sixteen years after Haile Gebrselassie made history by becoming the first runner to win four world titles in the 10,000m, his near-namesake Ghirmay Ghebreslassie was in the spotlight in the opening competition of the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015.
The 19-year-old created his own piece of athletics history by becoming the youngest ever winner of a road event at the IAAF World Championships and the first Eritrean athlete to win a gold medal at the championships.
Ghebreslassie had a solid reputation at previous major championships across all terrains, finishing seventh in the junior race at the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and seventh at the 2014 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. But despite that, his manager Jos Hermens – who also guided Gebrselassie throughout his legendary career – did not expect a result such as this one on the eve of the championships.
“I expected a top-five result because I knew that he was in good shape, but the win was totally unexpected,” said Hermens. “I expected more from Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich (the world and Olympic champion).
“But when I gave him the bottle at 40km, I saw that he was still fresh and that’s when I knew that he could win the race.”
Although he hails from a country with a proud history in long-distance running, no Eritreans before Ghebreslassie had managed to get on top of the podium at the IAAF World Championships. Only his illustrious compatriot Zersenay Tadese had managed to win a medal at the previous 14 editions of the World Championships, taking silver in the 10,000m in 2009.
Ghebreslassie started running seriously just three years ago. He ran the first 35km as a pacemaker at the Chicago Marathon last October as a learning experience but he decided to finish the race and placed sixth in 2:09:08 when he was still a junior. He ran 2:07:47 in his second race over the distance in Hamburg earlier this year.
“I thank my manager and the officials of my federation who supported me and gave me the chance to qualify for these championships,” he said following his victory. “It’s the first (World Championships) gold medal in Eritrean history and it’s very special for me. It gives me motivation to continue hard for next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.”
At the start of his career, Ghebreslassie was not encouraged by his parents to pursue athletics so he went against their wishes by becoming an international runner. Today he proved that his decision was the right one.
“My parents wanted me to be a great university student, but I wanted to become a good athlete,” he said. “When they saw that I had the potential to become a good runner, they started supporting me. Today’s victory will be a great surprise for them. I do not have words to explain what I feel today.
“I realised that I could win the race at 34km when I decided to leave the rest of the group. This race showed me that if you work hard, you can achieve what you aim for.
“I am not surprised that the Kenyan favourites Wislon Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto did not finish the race. These things can happen. Even strong athletes can face challenges. It’s so different from the city marathons when you have pacemakers until 25km or 30km and you only have to run 12km alone.
“Here it was difficult,” he added. “But we Eritreans never give up until the finish line.”
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF