Gen 10: Ethiopian distance runner Selemon Barega
With one eye on the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 and the other on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we're highlighting the rise of a new generation, 10 exciting prospects under the age of 21 who are set to become stars of the sport over the next few years.
We began the series, which runs Monday through Friday this week and next, with Sweden's Armand Duplantis, the world U20 record holder in the pole vault. Yesterday we added Sydney McLaughlin of the US, the world U20 record holder in the 400m hurdles.
Our series continues with Ethiopia's Selemon Barega, the world U20 record holder in the 5000m and a nominee for IAAF Male Rising Star of 2018.
Profile: Selemon Barega
After a rise through the ranks that has been as quick as it has been seamless, it’s easy to forget that Selemon Barega is still just 18 years old.
Following a bronze medal-winning run in the 5000m at the 2016 East African Junior Championships in his national team debut, Barega came to fore at the IAAF World U20 Championships at age 16 later that year when winning the 5000m title after a spirited homestretch battle. He has been among the world's finest middle-distance runners since.
Still a youth, he won the 3000m crown at the IAAF U18 Championships in Nairobi in mid-July of 2017, but by then he was already an established rising star. Ten days earlier, he dipped inside 13 minutes for 5000m, clocking 12:55.58 at his IAAF Diamond League debut in Lausanne where he was edged at the line by compatriot Muktar Edris. That impressed national team selectors. Less than a month later he found himself in London where he reached the World Championships 5000m final. He was an impressive fifth in the British capital.
His momentum didn't stop in 2018. In a tactical contest, he raced to silver over 3000m at the World Indoor Championships in March, and collected solid early season victories on the IAAF Diamond League circuit, over two miles in Eugene and 5000m in Stockholm. He hit a rough patch mid-season, with fourth-place finishes over 5000m at both the World U20 and African Championships, but it didn't last long.
At the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels, Barega pieced together one of the finest races ever over the distance, winning in 12:43.02 to become the fourth fastest man of all time, trailing just Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie and Daniel Komen whose performances were all world records. After improving his best by more than 12 seconds – a nearly unprecedented achievement at that level – Barega looks to be next in line among those record breakers.
10 facts about Barega
1. His family weren’t keen on him running. To start with, that is…
“Where I was brought up there were not big athletes in the region,” he says. “Starting at school sports, I wanted to run, but my family needed me to go to school and not to do running. But now they are satisfied!”
2. And now he’s started a trend back home.
“Around my region there are a lot of athletes beginning to train. ”
3. It’s Tokyo 2020 first; then the roads…
”I want to run at the Olympics on the track, and after that maybe I want to run a road race.”
4. He is fully aware of the athletics heritage provided to Ethiopia by Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele.
“When I started running I was looking at these great athletes. They are our role models.”
5. And he is upset that Haile Gebrselassie has stepped down as president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.
“I am not happy for that because I love Haile, he is an athlete, he knows everything about athletics."
6. His favourite food is kitfo
Which is of course a traditional Ethiopian dish consisting of minced raw beef, marinated in mitmita – a chili power-based spice blend – and niter kibbeh – a clarified butter infused with herbs and spices.
7. Watch out for Barega junior
“Nobody on either side of my family was interested in running or sport until me,” he says. “I started running. And now my younger brother, Mikias, whos is 16, has started to run well.”
8. He bears no grudge against his sometime training partner Yomif Kejelcha, who, in falling to the track, hauled back the younger athlete on the final turn of the 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne, preventing him from winning.
“We share training and a coach. It’s one of those things that happens in a race. We are still friends.”
9. World indoor 3000m silver medallist. IAAF Diamond League 5000m champion in 12:43.02 – an IAAF Diamond League record. But in between, he couldn’t get a medal at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Tampere. Whaaaat???
When I run for my country there is a lot of responsibility for my country, my people,” he says. “There is no pacemaker to push the race. I felt I would win in Tampere but I don’t know what happened. When I run Diamond League I don’t have that responsibility, and others push the race. I relax, and I run faster. It is easier. I am free…
10. Before he races he listens to...
Not music, but a recording of a person praying. He adheres to the Protestant religion – as do about 20% of the Ethiopian population.
World outdoor all-time top 10, 5000m
1 12:37.35 Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) Hengelo 2004
2 12:39.36 Haile Gebrselassie (ETH) Helsinki 1998
3 12:39.74 Daniel Komen (KEN) Brussels 1997
4 12:43.02 Selemon Barega (ETH) Brussels 2018
5 12:45.82 Hagos Gebrhiwet (ETH) Brussels 2018
6 12:46.53 Eliud Kipchoge (KEN) Rome 2004
7 12:46.79 Yomif Kejelcha (ETH) Brussels 2018
8 12:46.81 Dejen Gebremeskel (ETH) Paris 2012
9 12:47.04 Sileshi Sihine (ETH) Rome 2004
10 12:48.64 Isiah Kiplangat Koech (KEN) Paris 2012