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Letesenbet Gidey’s Record-Breaking Run Whets Appetite For Olympic Showdown

The competition equipment at Hengelo’s Fanny Blankers Koen Stadium had been packed away for barely 24 hours before the local organisers wheeled it all back out on to the track.

On Sunday (6), the stadium had played host to a record-breaking performance from double world champion Sifan Hassan at the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting.

When the Dutch distance runner won the 10,000m in 29:06.82, few would have expected the mark to last just 54 hours.

Yet just two days later, dozens of the world’s greatest distance runners descended on Hengelo for Ethiopia’s Olympic Trials. Although the fields were largely all Ethiopian, they were brimming with a combination of global champions and exciting up-and-coming talents, all desperate to impress the national selectors and secure a place on the team for the Tokyo Games.

The competition programme featured all standard track disciplines from 800m upwards. The main event, however, was the last: the women’s 10,000m.

Gidey, who last year set a world 5000m record of 14:06.62, went to the lead in the early stages, passing through 2000m in 5:54 and 3000m in 8:50.

She reached the half-way point in about 14:42, which put her slightly behind the world record pace that was being indicated by the blue Wavelight technology, but she looked extremely comfortable and had just Ababel Yeshaneh for company.

Gidey, the world 10,000m silver medallist, cranked out two more 2:55 kilometres, reaching 7000m in 20:32, and then started to wind up the pace. As she began lapping competitors, it soon became apparent that Hassan’s mark would last only a few more minutes.

Yeshaneh dropped back in the second half before eventually withdrawing from the race. Gidey, meanwhile, went through the bell just a couple of seconds inside 28 minutes, indicating she’d need a final lap of about 68 seconds to break Hassan’s mark.

Despite having to navigate around a field of lapped runners, Gidey powered around the final circuit in 63 seconds and stopped the clock at a world record of 29:01.03*.

With just two days separating Hassan’s and Gidey’s performances, it’s the shortest ever gap between 10,000m world records, men’s or women’s. The last time two world records were set in a similar timeframe in the same distance event was at the 1997 National Games in China, where Dong Yanmei and Bo Jiang both broke 5000m world records.

Gidey, who becomes the first woman to hold both the 5000m and 10,000m world records since Ingrid Kristiansen did so from 1986-1993, revealed in a post-race interview that she was confident in her plans to break the record, even if it was a bold attempt at a trials event.

“I expected to run the world record,” she said, but indicated she had grander plans. “Next I will try again, to run maybe 28:56.”

Whether or not her chance to do so comes before or after her faceoff with Hassan at the Olympics remains to be seen.


PROFILE


Letesenbet Gidey
Born: 20 March 1998. Coach: Haile Eyasu.

Letesenbet Gidey may have harboured her world record dreams for more than half a decade, but early in her career, she was a very reluctant competitor. So much so that in 2011 she was expelled from school for refusing to run in physical education classes.

“I really did not like racing,” she said, recalling her 13-year-old self. “I brought my parents to school to talk to the headmaster with the hope of getting reinstated. He agreed to reinstate me only if I ran for the school. I reluctantly agreed, just for the chance to get back to school.”

That headmaster deserves at least a modicum of credit for the career trajectory of Ethiopia’s latest distance running star, because if any reluctance remained, Gidey hid it well.

Born in Endameskel in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, Gidey – the fourth child in a family of two brothers and two sisters – grew up on her family’s farm looking to initially pursue academic interests. But after getting drawn to the sport in an unorthodox fashion, she knew that it could be her calling in life after competing in a regional race in 2011.

“I ran a 3000m race representing my Woreda [district] and finished second at the All-Tigray Games,” she recalls. “It was this performance that convinced me that I may have a future in athletics.”

But it wasn’t an entirely happy introduction to the sport. Early on, Gidey struggled for consistency when competing in her region, sometimes even getting lapped in races.

“I remember finishing 44th in my first cross country race [the junior women’s race at the Jan Meda national championships] in 2012,” she says. “That really did not feel good at all.”

But she stuck with it. In late 2012, Gidey won a 3000m/2000m steeplechase double for the Tigray region at the Ethiopian Schools Championships in Shashemane, which captured the attention of club scouts. A few weeks later, she joined the Trans sport club and moved to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. She then spent the next two years working her way into the national ranks which led to her first global breakthrough.

In 2015 Gidey led an Ethiopian podium sweep in the U20 race at the World Cross Country Championships, a title she successfully defended in Kampala two years later. She performed admirably on the track in her international debut, finishing fourth in the 3000m at the 2015 World U18 Championships.

Her steady rise continued. In 2018, her first season in the senior ranks, she improved to 8:30.96 and 14:23.14 in the 3000m and 5000m, respectively. The latter remained her lifetime best until her record run in Valencia in October 2020.

She returned to the global spotlight in 2019. In March she raced to bronze at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus and improved by a spot in Doha where she took 10,000m silver at the World Championships. She then capped the year with a 44:20 world best over 15km at the Seven Hills Run in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the ongoing conflict in Tigray, made it difficult for Gidey to travel outside of Ethiopia in 2020, but she managed two competitive appearances. Her first was a 14:26.57 clocking at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Monaco, beaten only by two-time world champion Hellen Obiri. Two months later, Gidey produced a stunning 14:06.62 world record run in Valencia, improving the previous mark by almost five seconds.

Gidey opened her 2021 campaign in April at the Ethiopian Championships where, competing in the altitude of Addis Ababa, she ran 14:56.7 for 5000m to finish second to world indoor 1500m record-holder Gudaf Tsegay.

Gidey wasn’t dispirited by the defeat, though; she knew that in normal racing conditions at sea level, she’d be capable of producing her best performances. And that’s exactly what she did in Hengelo.


STATS


Letesenbet Gidey’s progression
(3000m, 5000m, 10,000m) 2014: -, 16:19.3, –
2015: 9:04.64, 15:39.83, –
2016: -, 14:45.63, –
2017: -, 14:33.32, –
2018: 8:30.96, 14:23.14, –
2019: 8:20.27, 14:29.54, 30:21.23
2020: -, 14:06.62, –
2021: -, 14:56.7, 29:01.03


World all-time women’s 10,000m top 10
29:01.03 Letesenbet Gidey (ETH) Hengelo, 8 Jun 2021
29:06.82 Sifan Hassan (NED) Hengelo, 6 Jun 2021
29:17.45 Almaz Ayana (ETH) Rio de Janeiro, 12 Aug 2016
29:31.78 Wang Junxia (CHN) Beijing, 8 Sep 1993
29:32.53 Vivian Cheruiyot (KEN) Rio de Janeiro, 12 Aug 2016
29:39.42 Gudaf Tsegay (ETH) Maia, 8 May 2021
29:42.56 Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH) Rio de Janeiro, 12 Aug 2016
29:50.77 Kalkidan Gezahegne (BRN) Maia, 8 May 2021
29:53.51 Alice Aprot Nawowuna (KEN) Rio de Janeiro, 12 Aug 2016
29:53.80 Meselech Melkamu (ETH) Utrecht, 14 Jun 2009
29:59.20 Meseret Defar (ETH) Birmingham, 11 Jul 2009


Women’s 10,000m world record progression
32:17.20 Yelena Sipatova (URS) Moscow, 16 Sep 1981
31:35.3h Mary Tabb (USA) Eugene, 16 Jul 1982
31:35.01 Lyudmila Baranova (URS) Krasnodar, 29 May 1983
31:27.58 Raisa Sadreydinova (URS) Odessa, 7 Sep 1983
31:13.78 Olga Bondarenko (URS) Kiev, 24 Jun 1984
30:59.42 Ingrid Kristiansen (NOR) Oslo, 27 Jul 1985
30:13.74 Ingrid Kristiansen (NOR) Oslo, 5 Jul 1986
29:31.78 Wang Junxia (CHN) Beijing, 8 Sep 1993
29:17.45 Almaz Ayana (ETH) Rio de Janeiro, 12 Aug 2016
29:06.82 Sifan Hassan (NED) Hengelo, 6 Jun 2021*
29:01.03 Letesenbet Gidey (ETH) Hengelo, 8 Jun 2021*

*Subject to the usual ratification procedure

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