An Extract from A Time to Be Born.


Chapter 5: The Men’s Marathon, Olympic Games 2016


‘…Rain was falling as we went through the drill before the last major event at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games: the men’s marathon. We shed our tracksuits and attached transponders, little devices that measure times and splits, to our shoes.

All of us, in our bright singlets and shorts, a mass of colour, moved into position. Some were wearing caps, perhaps to deflect the rain from their eyes. My mop of hair can do that job. Mist was swirling about us. Someone pointed out the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer gazing down from a lofty summit, nearly obscured in the cloud. He was majestic, but eerie.

I looked along the front line of runners about to go into battle. Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan, the favourite for the race; Ghirmay Gebreselassie, the Eritrean, the reigning world champion; Stephen Kiprotich, the Ugandan, defending Olympic champion; Galen Rupp, the American, running his second marathon after winning at the Los Angeles trials; Lemi Berhanu and Tesfaye Abera, the Ethiopians, ready to repeat previous marathon wins.

I was not a favourite for the race. My time in Tokyo was 2:06:56, only the 31st fastest time of the year. I knew Eliud Kipchoge was very strong, but sometimes strong athletes do not perform well in a big competition when they represent their country and not just themselves. The pressure is too much. Anyway, a different unrehearsed script is played out in every marathon. There will be unexpected performances and unpredictable tensions. This is what makes the race what it is, a drama with a running time of more than two hours, with all of us, veterans and novices, wanting to play the lead role, to be centre stage at the medal awards, and to exit triumphantly to loud applause.

The camera scanned us as we toed the starting line. When it focused on me, I stared into the lens and tapped the tattoo on my right shoulder and pointed to it. Other athletes wear lucky charms; I had the odaa tree to remind me of my purpose for running this race. Perhaps some people among the millions watching were already asking. ‘What is that? What does it mean?’

We surged forward in response to the gun. The competitors, 155 of us, from 80 different nations, remained compacted for the first few kilometers, before a front group of about thirty asserted itself, running military fashion in almost straight lines about four deep, arms pumping, legs propelling us forward. I saw Lemi Berhanu take the lead; I was content to stay in the middle of the pack. You must maintain a constant pace and regular rhythm. Already some runners were jostling for position, changing their speed, exhausting their precious energy. Soon they would start to feel numbness in the body.

The rain was heavier. It was not cold like rain in Ethiopia, but warm and soothing. The sensation when it splashed on my legs was relaxing, pleasing to me. I could not risk feeling too comfortable; I had to stay alert for sharp corners and potholes in the road. Watch out for that hairpin bend that one runner had trouble with; he had to correct his stride. I was on the side at the back of the group, but I never positioned myself in no-man’s land between this group and the one that followed. I never run alone until I hit the front.

I was vaguely conscious of what was going on around me – the feet hitting the ground, the motors of the escort vehicles, the chatter of the helicopter hovering overhead, the spectators waving flags and pointing cameras. The rain eased and the reflections on the road were mesmeric. Look ahead, keep the rhythm, control your mind, control your body. The pace was slow; we were testing each other’s nerve to see who dared to increase speed.

The pack splintered at about the 15-kilometre mark. I saw Kipchoge make an early move, signalling his intention to take control of the race. He was in the front line the whole time, with others beside him changing places. Stephen Kiprotich moved to the front, then someone else took over the lead; later when I watched a replay I saw that it was Callum Hawkins, a British runner. The lead place at this stage was just as dangerous and lonely as no man’s land.

The humidity taxed our strength. Some train in heat chambers to prepare for this, the slow killer of marathon competitors. I paused once at a drink station; others grabbed saturated sponges to squeeze over their heads. Some were running just within their comfort zone; some were going beyond it and fell back. You could see them wobbling about, their shoulders rolling and their hands flailing.

An hour or so passed. I started to move forward. This is the time to close in on your opponents and put the pressure on. This is a race of attrition, wearing each other down, using tactics to best advantage. Tesfaye Abera was struggling; at 23 kilometres he dropped out. The group was thinning; Lemi Berhanu joined Kipchoge and briefly took the lead again. At the 30-kilometre mark we were down to eight runners.

Lemi Birhanu asked Eliud Kipchoge to run beside him! I don’t know what he was thinking. When Eliud moved to run beside him, Lemi could not keep up. I would have advised Lemi not to do that, but I must run my own race, not his.

Within two more kilometres, the lead pack was down to four – Eliud Kipchoge, Galen Rupp, Lemi Berhanu and me. In the next kilometre, Lemi fell behind. The three of us left in medal contention ran Indian file: Eliud, Galen, Feyisa. The numbers on their bibs were imprinted on my mind – 2680, 3097. I wanted them to see mine – 2398 – although running behind them benefited me with the windbreak they provided. They must work harder.

Galen Rupp lost contact with us at a water station. Now I was very close behind Eliud Kipchoge and some commentators accused me of clipping his heels. Kipchoge was angry, they said, motioning me to run next to him, to use the rest of the street. I didn’t respond to his signal; this was a psychological battle now between the two of us. He accelerated, and he dropped me around the 35-kilometre mark. From this point, as the course snaked around buildings, the three of us lost sight of each other as the gaps between us increased.

Soko will not get her gold medal. I had no resources left to challenge Eliud. I concentrated on beating Galen Rupp or any other runner coming from behind, desperate for a medal. I could have felt deflated at that point, seeing the Kenyan disappear in the distance, a sure winner, but then a wonderful thing happened.

The sky cleared, and I was running in an easterly direction. The sun shone gently on me, the Oromo son so far from home. Early in the morning, across Oromia, prayers of thanksgiving were being offered to God for the new day. Perhaps this day they thanked God for me, Feyisa Lilesa Gemechu, about to meet the expectations associated with my name. I was about to fulfil my destiny for them.

My legs ran steadily but in my mind I heard cries for help and saw the tears of the oppressed. No longer should all power remain on the side of the oppressors. I would finish the race well for my Oromo brothers and sisters.

Eliud was gone; he had the gold medal. I focused on Galen Rupp. I was not that concerned about him, running behind me, but I had to be careful. He ran the 5000-metre race at these Games, the one that Mo Farah won. Galen trained with Mo and came fifth in that race. The marathon is a difficult race, and even at this point I could become totally exhausted in the last 200 meters. If Galen increased speed, I had to be ready to do the same. I believed I had enough in reserve to sprint to the finish line. I glanced back several times, just to be sure, but he was not challenging. The silver medal was mine.

My time had come, and I would be on the podium. I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck as I approached the finish line. There was no stopping me now. I flexed my fists and raised my arms above my head, crossed at the wrists. Many people said later that it was a sign of jubilation, as if to shout, ‘It is finished!’ They were right, in a way, because I felt relieved of a weight greater than that of many Olympic medals around my neck. My plan for the race was finished, but not my life or my purpose. Journalists called it the race of my life or the race for my life. It was both.

I was supposed to feel elated at this triumphant end to an Olympic race. I had beaten many other elite athletes who coveted the trophies. All I could think about were the people dying back home. I saw flashbacks of the enormous tragedy. I wanted the world to know and act and share my burden. I repeated the protest sign four times, arms raised, wrists crossed, clenched fists facing out…’

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