Selemon Barega after winning the 3000m at the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017 (© Getty Images)
Selemon Barega is hoping history will repeat itself as he prepares for tomorrow’s 5000m in the eighth IAAF Diamond League meeting of the season.
Last year in Lausanne the latest massive talent to come out of Ethiopia ran a superb 5000m personal best of 12:55.58, finishing just 0.35 behind the winner and compatriot who would take the world title from Mo Farah later in the summer, Muktar Edris.
With that level of preparation behind him, it was hardly a shock that, 10 days later, he won the world U18 3000m title in Nairobi, clocking a personal best of 7:47.16 in what was the last of those championships to be held.
Now the 18-year-old is back on the shores of Lake Leman and seeking to bolster his IAAF Diamond League points tally with another super-fast time in his last race before heading off to Finland for the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018, where he will defend the 5000m title he won two years ago in Bydgoszcz.
Barega is well aware that he is part of a proud Ethiopian tradition in the U20 5000m – Edris won it in 2012, Yomif Kejelcha, two years his senior, in 2014, and he himself in 2016.
“This tradition is so important for me,” he said. “I am a proud Ethiopian and when I make my country proud it makes me so happy. I am so happy to be a part of history and the legacy of Ethiopian sports.
“I will prepare for the race in Tampere the same way I do for every event; I hope that God will grant me the fitness and shape on race day to be the winner.”
Barega, who finished fifth in the 5000m at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 – where Edris took the title off Mo Farah on his home ground of London – and runner-up to Kejelcha in the 3000m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, added that the U20 event remains a huge priority.
“I feel very lucky to be able to compete against the best athletes in the world,” he said. “And no matter the stage, I am very grateful to be there and show my ability.”
Barega’s world U20 title in 2016 came in a personal best of 13:21.21. A year later he was running 12:55.58 in Lausanne. That marks extraordinary progress, but as Barega explains: “World Championships are usually tactical races; I knew I had much more fitness in my body and I was going to be able to run very fast and show my level.
“Lausanne was a great opportunity for me to showcase my talents and I am very grateful for that.”
Barega will be aiming for a third IAAF Diamond League win of the season at tomorrow’s Athletissima meeting in the Stade de la Pontaise, having won the two-mile event in Eugene last month and then a 5000m in Stockholm in a world-leading 13:04.05. He followed it with another world-leading clocking of 7:37.53 in the 3000m in Ostrava.
In Lausanne he will be up against a field that includes Edris, Olympic silver medallist Paul Chelimo, and Birhanu Balew, the Bahraini who won in Shanghai and finished a close second to him in Stockholm.
Ethiopia’s Abadi Hadis, Eritrea’s Aron Kifle and Switzerland’s Julien Wanders are also in the field.
Along with the World U20 Championships, the IAAF Diamond League remains a target of high priority for Barega.
“It is so important to me,” he said. “Lausanne has become a very special place to me. God willing, we will have another fast race here tomorrow.”
Maintaining Ethiopia’s distance running tradition is a responsibility for Barega, but also a strong motivation.
“Muktar and Yomif are great competitors,” he said. “And having them pushing me will only make me a better racer. I am grateful to them for that.”
Barega’s agent, Hussein Makke, added: “Selemon is a very, very special young man. His age does not reflect his understanding of athletics and he has an unbelievable instinct for listening to his body and knowing his surroundings. His confidence in himself is really what sets him apart. There is no self-doubt at all in him.”
That confidence has been bolstered by watching hours of videos of Ethiopia’s multiple world and Olympic champions Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele during his spare time.
“I have [watched] videos of every top athlete,” he said earlier this year. “I am a big fan of Kenenisa and Haile. I admire Kenenisa’s successes and his records. I love the tactics that Haile implements in his races.”
Asked what particular elements he liked to pick out, Barega replied: “I love the demeanour of these great champions while they race; they seem unfazed by the competitions and competitors and I think that the way they can stay relaxed in races shows their true champions spirit.”
This year and last, Barega bolstered his own champion’s spirit with highly successful cross-country campaigns.
“I love the cross-country races,” he said. “It helps me to build my fitness for the track season. And my coach believes is it so important to have a strong base entering the indoor season. We build this base in the cross-country season.”
Barega also believes the champion’s spirit of all Ethiopian athletes is being supported by Gebrselassie since he assumed his role as President of Ethiopian Athletics.
“I am very happy to be under the guidance of President Haile,” he said. “He is the greatest champion we have had and his leadership is wonderful. We are so happy to have him at the helm of the EAF. He understands us and helps us to be better athletes and champions.”
There are no lofty claims coming from Barega, however. Asked about his targets for this season, he replied simply: “I want to stay healthy and run to the best of my ability.”
If he can do that, however, his ambitions look limitless.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF