By Len Johnson
Letesenbet Gidey was heading for the finish line about to become the world cross-country champion, adding to her world championships 10,000 metres title, world records at 5000 and 10,000 metres, stepping from bronze to gold in the world cross-country.
Victory seemed inevitable. It had for most of the race. Mindful of the heat, mindful of the physical demands of the course, Gidey had bided her time. A surge which took the Kenya pair Beatrice Chebet and Grace Loibach to what threatened to be a decisive break midway through the fourth 2km lap was calmly closed down.
Gidey was ‘in the zone’. When an athlete as good as her is in the zone, most times they win. She only need look at Ethiopian’s champions from marathon great Abebe Bikila through Haile Gebreselassie to Kenenisa Bekele, Derartu Tulu and Tirunesh Dibaba on the women’s side.
Gidey was striding serenely to victory, trance-like concentration unbroken, form holding against everything this demanding course threw at her.
Then the sky fell in. In little more than a step, Gidey crumpled sideways and fell to the ground. Chebet, who had sprinted through the series of chicanes as they climbed back up the rise to the turn and back down to the finish was on her and past her to a stunning victory. A supporter leapt the fence to assist Gidey which would subsequently add the insult of disqualification to the injury of her collapse.
From Zen to zero in a stride.
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Champion distance runners are not universally poetry in motion – hello Paula Radcliffe, hi Emil Zatopek – and there is truth in the saying that you always look very good until, suddenly, you don’t. Eagle-eyed observers of the finish claimed to have detected some anxious glances behind as Gidey came down the rise, back up through the chicanes (formed by stacks of car tyres, a nod to Mt Panorama’s iconic status in endurance car racing – and down again to the finish.
Repeated viewing of the finish drama confirms these observations but aggregating them and even multiplying the result by two did not add up to impending disaster.
Less amazingly but amazing nonetheless, this was a second straight finish drama from which Chebet emerged with a world cross-country gold medal.
Four years ago at the last pre-Covid championships in Aarhus, Chebet won the junior title after originally being placed third behind Ethiopian pair Alemitu Tariku and Tsigie Gebreselama. Problem was that one of the things Chebet carried across the line was the finishing ribbon. Further the other two seemed to believe she had won.
Turned out that the finish banner was obscuring the actual finish line at the photo-finish camera and further the position of the real finish was in turn obscured (invisible for all practical purposes) by the shadow cast by the finish gantry (don’t tell me you thought the only problem the sun had caused at a world cross-country was last Saturday in Bathurst).
In the end, the placings were revised to the order in which the trio had hit the tape. Only sensible decision, really.
Then, less than an hour after the sky had fallen on Gidey, it fell again – this time on everyone. The forecast 50 percent chance of a thunderstorm turned out to be a stone-cold (wrong word maybe?) certainty. The event command centre, monitoring the weather system closely, sensibly pulled the men’s race forward by 40 minutes.
Ultimately, this allowed the race to be successfully concluded though medal presentations were cancelled, Jacob Kiplimo getting a rousing reception from his teammates and numerous Uganda supporters but not much more than a “good onya” from anyone official.
Officially, though, there was a crowd evacuation order some 10 minutes before the end of the race. A fierce wind had blown in, sending everything that was light and not nailed down flying. On the media stand, one writer stuck up a hand to pluck a piece of paper out of the air, looked at it, said “it’s only a start-list”, and let it loose again. Good thinking, good editorial judgement all in one.
Two hours earlier, had come the first “can you believe it” moment when a Japanese runner in the U20 race fell backwards on the last hump before the finish and bum-shuffled his way towards the line. He got both feet over, then could move no more. Unfortunately, it’s the torso – or part, thereof – which has to cross the line. That meant he was a ‘dnf’, a decision upheld on appeal.
The Australian story of the day was by overwhelming public sentiment, anyway, the mixed relay bronze medal taken by Ollie Hoare, Jess Hull, Stewart McSweyn and Abbey Caldwell. I’m not silly enough to disagree (though I do have, shall we say, ‘mixed’ feelings about it), but I was pretty chuffed.
A little lost in the euphoria was a best-ever combined performance by the senior men’s and women’s teams. Both finished fourth, equalling the previous best for the men – back in Gateshead in 2003, two points behind Kenya (KENYA!!!) for the bronze medal – and beaten only on the women’s (long course only) side by the bronze medal in Edinburgh in 2008.
It’s difficult to compare across eras, but the Gateshead83 team had a team score of 193. Six runners made up the men’s team then, it’s been reduced to four now. The first four in Edinburgh – Rob de Castella, John Andrews, Lawrie Whitty and Bryan Lewry – tallied 100 against Ky Robinson, Jack Rayner, Brett Robinson and Andy Buchanan’s total of 116.
On the same basis, the Edinburgh bronze medal team’s Benita Johnson, Lisa Weightman, Melissa Rollison and Anna Thompson combined for 84 points versus the Bathurst four of Ellie Pashley, Leanne Pompeani, Rose Davies and Caitlin Adams score of 92. Close enough for jazz.
So, hats off to the relay, but likewise to the scoring four men and women and the rest (Rorey Hunter, Andre Waring, Isobel Batt-Doyle and Georgia Hansen). They all did us proud.
Then, as a can-you-believe-it sequel, the 35-69 master’s race, the final event at Sunday’s world masters’ championships, was contested by just south of 300 competitors, the sort of massed start we have not seen in the World Athletics cross-country championships for years now.
What a sight for sore eyes. An aspirational target for future events, perhaps?
Great write up Len. For the record, Open Men’s race was only 20 minutes early. Open Women went 5 minutes early.