Eritrean teenager Ghirmay Ghebreslassie claimed the first gold medal of the Beijing world championships when he sprinted away for a shock victory in the men’s marathon on Saturday.
The 19-year-old took the lead from Lesotho’s Tsepo Ramonene Mathibelle on the 36km mark and saw off pressure from Ethiopian Yemane Tsegay for a memorable win at the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium in clear conditions and temperatures around 27 degrees Celsius (81F).
Ghebreslassie, who became the youngest ever world marathon winner in just his fourth race, clocked 2hr 12min 27sec, with Tsegay, fourth in 2009 and eighth in Moscow two years ago, taking silver in 2:13:07 and Munyo Solomon Mutai of Uganda the bronze (2:13:29).
It was Eritrea’s second ever world medal after Tadesse Zersenay’s silver in the 10,000m in the 2009 worlds in Berlin.
“Although I do not have much experience, I will work to make another special history in Rio,” Ghebreslassie said of his plans for next summer’s Olympic Games.
“The weather was very nice for me. Since childhood I grew up in similar weather conditions.
“I had decided to try to leave any group by the 34km mark,” he said of his pre-race strategy.
Mongolia’s Ser-Od Bat-Ochir had his moment of fame when he took the lead for a few early kilometres, but was quickly swept up by the chasing pack, Bahrain’s Ethiopian-born Shumi Dechasa setting much of the early pace.
The runners swept through the 10km mark in 31:51, and a surge through the following 5km saw the pack string out with Dechasa up front, and Uganda’s defending champion Stephen Kiprotich just five seconds off the pace in the chasing pack.
A definitive break predictably saw the Ethiopian trio of Lelisa Desisa, Tsegay and Berhanu Lemi, Ugandans Kiprotich, Mutai and Jackson Kiprop, and world record holder Dennis Kimetto, along with fellow Kenyans Wilson Kipsang and Mark Korir all eyeing each other up.
Eritrean duo Ghebreslassie and Amanuel Mesel were also in the mix as Italian team captain Daniele Meucci shot out to the front on the picturesque course around the streets of Beijing.
Meucci, the 2014 European marathon champion, went through 20km in 1:03:23, teammate Rugero Pertile taking up the running.
The Italian duo struck out on their own, but were sucked in around the 25km mark, Lesotho’s Mathibelle sprinting away after 90 minutes of running and building up a 25-sec lead.
Ghebreslassie set out after Mathibelle, overtaking the flagging Lesothan on the 36km mark.
Tsegay was on his heels, with Mutai in third, the Eritrean nervously looking at his watch and over his shoulder as he tried to pace himself through the final few kilometres under an increasingly hot sun.
The pair were neck-and-neck as they approached the Bird’s Nest, but Ghebreslassie produced one last kick, punching the air and snatching his country’s flag as he entered the stadium for the final 100 metres.
“Not only was it hot, it was windy,” lamented Tsegay, who also complained of stomach cramps from 38km. “It was a very difficult race with all the star athletes competing.”
There was no luck for Kiprotich, who missed out an unprecedented three consecutive global championship marathons after previously winning golds at the London Olympics and the Moscow worlds.
The Ugandan eventually finished sixth (2:14:42), with Kimetto, who clocked a world best of 2:02:57 in Berlin last year, pulling up after 1:38.