The first of the girls’ track finals in Nairobi was always expected to be a fight between Kenya and Ethiopia.
Eagerly awaited by the crowd gathered in the stadium, the 3000m certainly did not disappoint, even if the final result was not what the Kenyan crowd had hoped for.
In a tight finish, Ethiopia’s Abersh Minsewo prevailed in 9:24.62, marginally beating the home favourite Emmaculate Chepkirui. Yitayish Mekonene made it two Ethiopians on the podium, pushing Beatrice Chebet out of the medals.
The final did not get off to the best of starts with no less than three recalls before the girls set on their way around the water-flooded track, a result of more than two hours of continuous rain.
The race started at a slow pace, with the whole field tightly bunched throughout the initial laps. The first 400 metres took more than 79 seconds, and it only got slower afterwards, with 1000m covered in 3:23.16. Chebet was the leader at that point, but there was little in it with nearly the whole field still running in a tight pack.
It was only on the fourth lap that the race began in earnest. Mekonene of Ethiopia injected just enough pace to split up the group. By the time the runners reached 2000m in 6:34.69, the leading group had been cut down to six. Only the two Ugandan runners, Sarah Chelangat and Esther Yeko Chekwemoi, were able to stay with the favoured Kenyans and Ethiopians.
That state of affairs did not last long and by the penultimate lap, it became clear the race would go down to a Kenya vs Ethiopia battle. World U20 silver medallist Chepkirui, who had trailed the leaders until that point, moved to the front just before the bell, but as the girls entered the final lap, it was still anybody’s guess which of the four leaders would take it.
Chepkirui tried to push the pace in the final 400 metres, but was unable to shake off her Ethiopian rivals. Half way through the final lap, it was Minsewo who moved up to her shoulder and momentarily took the lead. The Kenyan did not yield, stuck to the curb and gained a metre on the curve.
Chepkirui reached the final straight still in the lead, but by then the distance between the leaders was shrinking. It turned into a neck-and-neck battle between the two, but despite all the support from the crowd for the home athlete, Minsewo eventually started inching ahead. She never really got away, but in the end, she reached the finish line first, arms aloft. The gap was only 0.07 between first and second.
Mekonene was well beaten over the last 200 metres, finishing nearly four seconds adrift, with the second Kenyan, Chebet, almost five seconds away from the podium.
The final winning time of 9:24.62 belied the true quality of the winner’s performance, as Minsewo ran the final kilometre just outside 2:49.
“We trained in similar conditions back home, so it was not as difficult as you may think,” said the happy winner after the end of the rain-drenched race. “I am happy to have fulfilled my responsibility to win the first gold medal for my country.”
Despite the disappointment of her loss, Chepkirui was stoic about the end result. “My target was to win the gold, but I believe I ran a good race today despite the weather conditions,” she said. “My plan was to create a gap in the last stretch of the race, but the competition was stiff.”