Bikila, Wolde, Abera…for such a marathon-mad nation, the list of Ethiopian global men’s marathon champions is surprisingly brief.
Or it was until shortly after 2.10am on Sunday morning when a slight 29-year-old called Lelisa Desisa added his name to that roll of honour by becoming his nation’s first world marathon champion for 18 years.
For Desisa, victory on Doha’s famous Corniche not only ended a 42-kilometre road race, but a six-year journey to redemption following his narrow defeat at the Moscow 2013 World Championships.
Desisa had burst onto the Marathon scene that January when he won his maiden race over the gruelling distance in Dubai in a scintillating time of 2:04:45, one of the fastest debuts ever seen.
He arrived in the Russian capital that August as the quickest man in the field and favourite for gold, but was beaten by Uganda’s Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich within sight of the finish line.
It was heartbreaking for Desisa who showed his inexperience by needlessly following his opponent’s zig-zagging course as they approached the Luzhniki Stadium.
The memory of that mistake burned long in the memory until Desisa finally doused it in Doha with a controlled performance and a determined sprint finish that took him across the finish line ahead of compatriot Mosinet Geremew in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 40 seconds.
“This is a great medal for me, and for Ethiopia,” he said after his four-second win.
“It is the first for us for a long time. I did perfectly what my coaches told me and I won the race. I controlled everybody and saved my power.”
Desisa had been with a leading group of six from half way until they were whittled down, first to five, then to four, with less than 10km to go, only to swell again when the fast-closing Briton Callum Hawkins bridged the gap on the final lap.
Desisa kept his cool in the challenging heat and put in a sustained burst one kilometre from home before out-kicking Geremew to become his country’s second world marathon champion champion following Gezahegne Abera in 2001.
“In training my big goal has always been to be a world champion, and today, I am the gold medallist,” said
“This is not only my medal, it belongs to 100 million Ethiopians.
“Only one Ethiopian has won marathon gold before. I am the second so this is a special medal for me and for my country.
“It is history for Ethiopia to go one-two. We tried in Moscow but we couldn’t do it. In Moscow, I lost because of tactical problems. This year I controlled everybody, and finally I can bring home a gold medal,” he added.