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African distance titans take first golds at Cali

Tuesday August 2, 2022
By Cathal Dennehy

The first two gold medals of the 2022 World Athletics U20 Championships in Cali went to distance running superpowers Ethiopia and Kenya.

Addisu Yihune takes 5000m – World U20 Championships Day 1. Photo: Oscar Munoz Badilla for World Athletics

On the opening day at the 2022 World Athletics U20 Championships, the endurance superpowers showed their talent pipeline is still flowing as Ethiopia’s Addisu Yihune won the men’s 5000m title and Kenya’s Betty Chelangat won the women’s 3000m. 

Yihune showed the vast range of gears synonymous with so many of his countrymen when powering to gold in the 5000m in 14:03.05, but Eritrea showed signs of a rising tide by taking silver and bronze through Merhawi Mebrahtu (14:03.33) and Habtom Samuel (14:03.67). 

The race began at a relative jog, with 3000m reached in 8:45.57 – comically slow for athletes of this calibre. From there, things slowly started to heat up with pre-race favourite Yihune moving to the front and the fourth kilometre covered in a steady 2:45.27. The lead changed many times in the laps that followed and there were nine men in the front pack with just over a lap to run. But Yihune simply had too much for his rivals when every one of them went for broke in the last 200m, avenging his fourth-place finish in last year’s world U20 5000m final in Nairobi. 

“I spent all that time preparing for this,” he said. “I was 100% sure I would win.”

Yihune is coached by Tewodros Hailu, the husband of Ethiopian great Meseret Defar, and he said he was “incredibly happy” with the title, which is so often a predictor of senior success. “The time doesn’t matter,” he said. “I was here to win.”

Mebrahtu was equally delighted with silver, having finished fourth over 3000m and fifth over 5000m last year in Nairobi, while Samuel added his bronze to the one he won over 3000m last year in Nairobi. More importantly, it helped him forget his 17th-place finish over 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon. 

“I was so sad after and I wanted to come to Cali to get a medal,” said Samuel, who trains with Mebrahtu in Asmara under coach Mechale Aberham. “I’m very happy (for) my friend.”

Earlier, in the women’s 3000m, Kenya’s Chelangat produced a powerful display to take the first gold medal of the championships, winning the women’s 3000m with a killer kick on the back straight, moving away from her two pursuers: Ethiopia’s Tsiyon Abebe and Kenya’s Nancy Cherop. 

Chelangat stayed strong all the way to the finish, crossing the line in 9:01.03 ahead of Abebe (9:03.85) and Cherop (9:05.98). After an army-style salute to the crowd, Chelangat dropped to her knees, raised her arms in celebration, then clasped them in thankful prayer. 

But she was just as quick to rise to her feet and take off with her teammate for a lap of honour that looked almost as fast as her last 300m, the effort clearly not taking much out of her. 

“I train hard, and that’s why I win,” said Chelangat, who is based in Iten under the guidance of coach John Litei. “I waited until three laps remaining, then I see that I have enough left. I thank God and also my coach.

"As for what the future holds? “I want to represent my country and run in the Olympic Games."

Abebe was pleased with her silver, saying: “This is the first time I've gotten to represent my country. Of course, I wanted to get gold, which didn't work out, but I am incredibly happy.” Cherop paid tribute to her coach, Peter Bii, saying she was “expecting to win the race” but was content with bronze. 


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