Perfect hat-trick for Cheptegei

Uganda's Joshua Cheptegei, Kenya's Benard Kibet, Kenya's Nicholas Kipkorir, and other athletes compete in the men's 10,000m final during the World Athletics Championships at the National Athletics Centre in Budapest. PHOTO/AFP

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Cheptegei had arrived in Budapest with no win in four competitive races of 2023 and a part of that included losing his World Cross-country title to Kiplimo in Bathurst, Australia on February 25.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY. Not so many Ugandans deliver under pressure but Joshua Cheptegei always does it at the pinnacle of athletics. He entered the National Athletics Centre on Sunday and buried any inklings of doubt as well as a sizable bag of pressure to win his third straight 10000m title at the World Athletics Championships here in the Hungarian capital.

Overcoming challenges

Cheptegei had overcome a leg problem and answered all questions from a determined opposition, the Doubting Thomases as well as the magnitude of the task at hand to power to a winning time of 27 minutes and 51.42 seconds on a rather hot evening.

“It’s special for me,” Cheptegei reacted almost an hour after celebrating with his fourth Worlds’ medal. “It’s been a very turbulent moment for me, especially coming back from the injury,” he said in the mixed, shortly after hugging his manager Jurrie van der Velden and coach Addy Ruiter.

As his challengers fell to the floor one by one upon crossing the finish-line, Cheptegei chest-thumped like a roaring Silverback gorilla to the stadium terraces as many were cheering on loud.

After embracing silver medal winner Kenyan Daniel Ebenyo and bronze medallist Ethiopian Selemong Barega, the 26-year-old then grabbed the national flag from the standings and went on for a lap of honour.

There would then be photo moments and selfies with the fans, shortly before the men’s electric 100m final. Cheptegei had completed a historic hat-trick. “It’s a special moment for me,” he said.

Historic hat-trick

He had become the fourth man in history to win back-to-back-to-back world 10000m titles, following the footsteps of Ethiopia's Haile Gebresselasie and Kenenisa Bekele as well as Great Britain's Mo Farah.

“I want to thank God for always giving me the opportunity,” he said. At the London 2017, Cheptegei picked a 10000m silver medal and he has held onto the 10000m world gold at the Doha 2019 in Qatar, Oregon 2022 in the USA and now Budapest editions.

In Doha, Cheptegei had the company of Abdallah Mande who took early pace to the field. In Oregon, Cheptegei relied on team work from Stephen Kissa and Jacob Kiplimo.

With Kiplimo injured, the task was harder here. Cheptegei took the much needed support from the youngster Rogers Kibet and seasoned cross-country runner Joel Ayeko in a tough field of 25 men from 16 nations.

“It was really very tactical because I know the pressure was really so much, everybody wanted to win that gold medal. The feeling was incredible and to come first, is not really a mean achievement.”

“It was a perfect race,” remarked Addy Ruiter. “He executed it well, and he was aware of what was at stake,” his manager Jurrie van der Velden reacted.

Cheptegei had arrived in Budapest with no win in four competitive races of 2023 and a part of that included losing his World Cross-country title to Kiplimo in Bathurst, Australia on February 25.

Well executed race

However, he was only recovering from injury suffered in Oregon which had him sit out for three months and there were vivid signs of recovery with fast times over the 5000m during the Diamond League races in Florence, Italy and Lausanne, Switzerland in June.

“All my plans were to defend my title here in Budapest. So all the rest of the races were just to get me back into shape and (get back) the confidence. I knew I had to be patient up to Budapest,” he added.

Upon the gun, Ayeko hit the front early and about 30 metres behind; Cheptegei carried the field along with three Kenyans following. By then, Barega was at the back of the field and little changed until after the 2500m mark.

Cheptegei and the rest closed while Barega still stayed at the back. Ayeko crossed the 3000m mark in 8:37:30 with Cheptegei less than a second adrift.

With 17 laps to go, Kenyan Benard Kibet took the lead only for a lap before Ayeko regained control. Meanwhile, Rogers, who later finished 22nd, moved up the pile.

Ethiopian Berihu Aregawi who had been tipped as the main threat owing to his form this year, moved to fourth place next to Cheptegei at 4000m and by then, Benard had returned to lead, the pace increased the pace.

Suddenly, the tactics continued to play out proper. Ayeko prematurely ended his first race on spike with 14 laps left then Aregawi the pack through the halfway point to 5200m in 14:56.71.

Electric final lap

Kenyan Kibet led again to stretch out the field with another injection of speed towards the 6000m mark. Barega came out to take charge, with Cheptegei laid in third.

With five laps to go, the field upfront had sized down to nine men and Aregawi, silver medallist in Bathurst, had the lead and when Barega attempted to join him ahead with about 500m left, Cheptegei quickly replied and he kicked with about 40m to the bell.

Here, Cheptegei never looked. He executed an unmatched final lap of 54.45 seconds to leave the Ethiopians in his wake, Ebenyo coming through to take silver in a time of Daniel Ebenyo 27:52.60 while Olympic champion Barega posted 27:52.72.

“We failed to implement the tactics of the coach. Aregawi went early,” Barega said, “I wasn’t expecting a bronze. I thought I would finish second, even while watching the screen. I didn’t think Ebenyo would come through,” he added.

Cheptegei’s finish marked Uganda’s 12th medal in the history of the Worlds. The East African nation has won at least a medal at every Worlds’ edition since the Moscow 2013 edition in Russia.