Kenenisa Bekele Officially Left Off Ethiopian Olympic Team; Gudaf Tsegay Is Running The 5000

By Jonathan Gault
July 1, 2021

The second-fastest marathoner of all time will not be at the Olympics this summer.

After months of uncertainty, the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) announced its team today for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and Kenenisa Bekele was not on it. Bekele, who ran 2:01:41 to win the 2019 Berlin Marathon, missing Eliud Kipchoge‘s world record by two seconds, did not run the Ethiopian Olympic marathon trials on May 1. Just two days later, however, the Ethiopian Olympic Committee — which has been at odds with the EAF in recent years — assured that Bekele would be on the Olympic team. Bekele has spent the last two months in limbo awaiting his fate.

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Today, in a joint announcement from the EAF and Ethiopian Olympic Committee, Ethiopia named its official team for the Games, which open on July 23 in Tokyo, and the four men’s marathoners (three racers and one alternate) were the top four finishers from the trials race: London Marathon champion Shura Kitata, world champion Lelisa Desisa, and 2:03 marathoner Sisay Lemma, with 2:04 marathoner Chalu Deso as the alternate.

Traditionally, the EAF has picked its Olympic team based on time, but with many 2020 and 2021 marathons cancelled due to COVID-19, the EAF decided to hold a trials race this spring, which it announced just two months ahead of the race. Three days before the race, a letter written by Bekele was published on Twitter, criticizing the federation for not following its original selection procedure — which would have put Bekele on the team by virtue of his 2:01:41 from September 2019. Bekele also explained that while he was not injured, he would not be running the trials race as the 14-week gap between the trials and the Olympic marathon in Sapporo on August 8 was too short. Bekele was also left off the Ethiopian Olympic team in 2016; he responded that fall by winning the Berlin Marathon in 2:03:03, just six seconds off of the world record at the time.

Bekele prior to withdrawing from the London Marathon last fall (Photo: Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

While still capable of occasional greatness, Bekele has been frustratingly inconsistent in recent years (it’s worth noting that while Bekele said he was 100% healthy at the time of the trials, he did not say he was in terrific shape). Of the last four marathons Bekele has signed up for, he has withdrawn from two (2019 Tokyo, 2020 London) and dropped out of a third (2018 Amsterdam). In the fourth (2019 Berlin), he ran the second-fastest time in history.

Speaking to LetsRun.com, Bekele’s agent Jos Hermens criticized the EAF for its selection procedure.

“They told them he would be in the team before and then they come out with these trials,” Hemerns said. “…It was a whole discussion again. Without the trials, they would have told him a few months ago that he would for sure be on the team like they promised and there was no problem. It was just not a clear procedure and that’s happening more.

“…It’s always the same problem. It’s politics, it’s coaches, everyone has their own interest, many people talking together, don’t know what to do, how do we select? So Kenenisa, that’s why he sent the letter because he got kind of sick of it…It was all discussed behind everybody’s back. You can understand that every coach wants to have somebody in the team because it makes them money. It was a really political thing.”

Of course Hermens, as Bekele’s agent, also has a vested financial stake here as well. In fact, one of the reasons the EAF decided to stage a trials race in the first place was in order to quash any accusations of politics or favoritism and let the results speak for themselves. 

But the decision to hold the trials was not announced until two months before the race, giving the athletes little time to prepare. Hermens added that he felt it was inappropriate to stage the trials race at 7,700 feet of elevation in Sebeta for a race that will be held in sea level in Sapporo (the Ethiopian track trials were held at sea level in Hengelo and organized by Hermens’ Global Sports Communication agency).

Hermens also revealed that Bekele contracted COVID-19 shortly before the Trials and said that while it did not affect him too much, he did have to take some time off and “probably would not have been in the right shape for the trial.” Hermens argued that Bekele deserves the third spot on the team ahead of Sisay Lemma due to his career accomplishments and Bekele’s head-to-head win against Lemma in Berlin in 2019, where Lemma finished third, 1:55 behind Bekele.

Hermens’s suggestion: Ethiopia should have named Bekele to the team with Lemma as the alternate. If Bekele felt he was not up to competing at his best, he would cede his Olympic spot to Lemma.

“I think Kenenisa deserves, with his career, if Kenenisa is ready, you know he’s a medal contender. If he’s not, then he will be honest, so they should have picked four, maybe and I think you should pick them as much as possible from the marathon [results], but of course that was difficult because there were not that many marathons. [Kitata] is in the team, that makes sense. And also the winner of Doha (Desisa) because he was pretty good in the warm weather. I think the first two, there’s not a lot of discussion about that. It’s more the third place.

“And then if you have four people, you could, say, prepare all four, and if Kenenisa [isn’t fit, he would withdraw]. Kenenisa, he has already three gold medals. So he should only go there for a gold medal, or at least for a medal and a clash with Eliud. Now he was not in that kind of shape before the trials, okay.”

Bekele is 39 years old and has not raced since March 2020, but Hermens said that he is in “all right” shape at the moment and plans on running a fall marathon. Hermens said that Bekele is currently based in the Netherlands, which is where he spent some of his buildup ahead of Berlin in 2019 to receive medical support and nutritional guidance.

As for Bekele’s plans beyond 2021, Hermens said, “it really depends on him.”

“I can see him going until Paris, but that’s his decision, if he has the motivation to do so,” Hermens said. “Kenenisa is something special. He can still be Olympic champion in Paris, in my eyes. He’s an incredible talent, the years don’t do that much to him. But it’s more, he really has to decide to do it. That’s something nobody knows exactly. Probably [he doesn’t even know yet].”

Another significant piece of news from the Ethiopian Olympic team announcement was that Gudaf Tsegay, the reigning World Championship bronze medalist at 1500 meters and the world indoor record holder at that distance, is only entered in the 5,000 meters, the event she competed in at the Ethiopian Olympic track trials on June 8 (she is also listed as the alternate in the 10,000 meters). Instead, Ethiopia has named the top three finishers from the 1500 meters at the trials: Freweyni Hailu, Diribe Welteji, and Lemlem Hailu. Tsegay’s absence boosts the medal hopes of US Olympic Trials champion Elle Purrier as well as British star Laura Muir.

The rest of the team consists of the top three finishers from each event at the Ethiopian trials, except for the men’s 800, where none of the athletes at the trials had the Olympic standard. In that event, Ethiopia named only Melese Nberet to the team.

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MB: Breaking: Kenenisa Bekele left off Ethiopian Olympic squad. Laura Muir and Elle Purrier get big boost as Tsegay opts for 5000

The entire press release from the Ethiopian federation can be found below. Thanks to Ethiopian journalist (and friend of LetsRun.com) Teferi Debebe for sharing and translating it:

 

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