Eritrean stuns top marathon field, youngest winner at 19

Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea celebrates as he enters the Bird's Nest stadium to win the men's marathon after taking the lead from the 36km mark.
Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea celebrates as he enters the Bird's Nest stadium to win the men's marathon after taking the lead from the 36km mark.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Eritrean teenager Ghirmay Ghebreselassie became the youngest marathon world champion when he surprised a top field of fellow East Africans to win the first title of athletics' World Championships in Beijing yesterday.

The 19-year-old took the lead from Lesotho's Tsepo Ramonene Mathibelle at the 36km mark.

He then saw off pressure from Ethiopian Yemane Tsegay for a memorable win in 2hr 12min 27sec at the iconic Bird's Nest stadium in clear conditions and temperatures around 27 deg C.

He produced a first world title for his country following Tadesse Zersenay's silver in the 10,000m in the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.

"I cannot explain what I am feeling, I am so happy," he said.

"I am so proud of this victory.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

My parents wanted me to be a great student but I wanted to be a great athlete. In the beginning, my coach thought I was not a gifted boy but I found my potential when I was 11.

GHIRMAY GHEBRESELASSIE

"My medal is the first gold in Eritrean history. It is a very special thing for our history.

"My parents wanted me to be a great student but I wanted to be a great athlete. In the beginning, my coach thought I was not a gifted boy but I found my potential when I was 11. Today's victory will be a great surprise to them."

Tsegay, who led briefly before Ghebreselassie's final surge, finished 40 seconds behind the Eritrean in second place.

Uganda's Solomon Mutai claimed bronze in 2.13.29.

Ghebreselassie and Tsegay were neck-and-neck as they approached the Bird's Nest but the Eritrean 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."

Uganda's defending champion Stephen Kiprotich missed out on consecutive world marathon titles after he could finish only sixth (2:14:42). World record-holder Dennis Kimetto, who clocked 2:02:57 in Berlin last year, pulled up after 1:38.

"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," Ghebreselassie said of his race strategy.

The Eritrean is now looking to shine at next year's Rio Olympics.

"Although I am very young, I hope I could have great performance in Rio.

"It is a dream place for everyone," he said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2015, with the headline 'Eritrean stuns top marathon field, youngest winner at 19'. Print Edition | Subscribe