TOKYO (AFP) – 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 (July 30).
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.
The race was marked by the absence of two-time defending champion Mo Farah, who swept the 5,000m and 10,000m at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics but failed to make the British team for Tokyo.
Cheptegei’s teammate Stephen Kissa was 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.
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 deg C.
Cheptegei made his move to the front with 2km to go, cheered on by sparse pockets of Ugandan athletes in the otherwise empty 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium deprived of fans because of Covid-19 restrictions in the Japanese capital.
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 all over his chest and chin, hit the front with 200 metres to go.
Teeth gritted and eyes firmly 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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