News23 Aug 2009

Jamal on title defence – ‘Happier than in Osaka’


The women's 1500m medallists (L-R) Great Britain's Lisa Dobriskey (silver), Bahrain's Maryam Jamal (gold) and the USA's Shannon Rowbury (bronze) (© Getty Images)

Berlin, GermanyFinishing second and not getting a lap of honour seems like the least satisfying way to win a gold medal. No arms aloft stride through the line, no leap for joy, no victory lap with your country’s flag draped around your shoulders.

But Maryam Yusuf Jamal doesn’t see it that way. The Ethiopian-born Bahraini, who retained her world 1500m title at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Berlin this afternoon, says the rather messy manner of her victory will not tarnish the feeling of becoming a double World champion. Quite the opposite.

“I am happier this time than I was in Osaka,” says the 24-year-old who was awarded the title following the disqualification of Spain’s Natalia Rodriguez. “What the Spanish girl did was wrong and it is right that she was disqualified.

“However this does not take away from my victory and I am confident that had she not come through on the inside and cut us off I would have won anyway.”

The battle was meant to be between the reigning gold medallist, who became her adopted nation’s first ever world champion two years ago, and her former compatriot, Gelete Burka.

It was a battle. But Burka’s part in it ended with 200m to go shortly after she and Jamal began their push for home. Burka struck out 300m from the line with Jamal on her right shoulder, both ready to unleash their finishing kicks.

It could have been quite a finish for the two have been close rivals recently with the score between them standing at one-one this season, Burka winning in Lausanne and Jamal in Monaco, and they were both comfortable winners of their semi-finals in Berlin.

But Rodriguez had other ideas. She and Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey were chasing down the two favourites as the race approached its climax when the Spaniard tried to squeeze through a gap on the inside that simply didn’t exist. As a result she virtually shoved Burka to the track meaning Jamal had to dance around the Ethiopian’s flailing limbs just to stay upright. Rodriguez took the advantage and sprinted for home with Jamal and Dobriskey in her wake.

“The race was not difficult before then, although there was a lot of pushing,” says Jamal. “But when the Spanish girl pushed Gelete that threw me off. In the end it was all right but I am very disappointed that Gelete fell behind because I am certain she would have taken a medal.”

The Spaniard’s victory was met by boos from the crowd, and none of the top three finishers bothered with a lap of honour as a DQ seemed inevitable. At first Jamal was happy to be second, she says, delighted to escape without crashing to the track herself.

“I’m disappointed I lost my gold medal but I’ve still made it to the podium” she said as soon as she left the track. “My plan was to follow the leader and kick at the end, maybe with about 100m to go. I tried, but she passed me in the end.”

It was just a relief to have finished, she says. “It was a shock when it happened and I could not move away easily, but I could have fallen like Gelete and not got a medal.

“When someone falls next to you it throws you off and you become nervous. I finished second so when I found out I had the gold it was a great feeling.”

It may not have happened in the way she would have liked, but Jamal is happy to have given Bahrain its second victory of the championships following Yusuf Saad Kamel’s gold in the men’s 1500m on Wednesday, especially after she finished a disappointing fifth in the Beijing Olympics last summer.

The story of her journey to Bahraini citizenship is well known. Born Zenebech Tola in Arsi province, she took to running at a young age growing up in the same village as Haile Gebrselassie. Well, who else would you have as your idol?

“Like all boys and girls from Arsi, I wanted to emulate him,” she says. Like her hero she developed her endurance by going to school on foot – 16km in her case. “Sometimes we had to run when we were late,” she says.

As a young athlete she tried sprinting, then high jumping, but eventually she turned to middle distances and joined the Muger Club in Addis Ababa which also counts a certain Kenenisa Bekele among its members.

She moved to Switzerland to race and be with her manager, deciding for personal reasons not to return to Ethiopia, fearing that she might not be allowed abroad again. She filed for political asylum in May 2002 and, for a time thought she would give up athletics until persuaded by her partner, Mnashu Taye, also an asylum seeker from Ethiopia (now also a Bahraini called Tareq Sabt Hasan), to stick with her talent.

It was a good a decision, although her career has hardly been easy. After being refused a place in Ethiopia’s 2004 Olympic team, and then turned down for Swiss citizenship (because she hadn’t been resident for 12 years), she eventually opted to run for Bahrain and took her new name.

Although she spends less than a month in the kingdom each year, the move has certainly paid dividends – after winning gold in Osaka, for example, she received a diamond watch from the queen. “A really nice gift,” she says.

No doubt, the royal family will be waiting to present her with another present this time. After all, not many nations have double world champions to celebrate, even if their flag didn’t get paraded around the stadium.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF

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