By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion
Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie won the New York City Marathon, among the world’s pre-eminent long-distance annual running events, with a time of 2 hours, 7 minutes, 51 seconds, finishing over a minute ahead of Kenya’s Lucas Rotich, who took second place, and Somali-born American Abdi Abdirahman, who finished third.
Although it was only his race debut and though confronted by challenging, windy conditions, Ghirmay’s time qualified him as the third-fastest runner in the marathon’s 46-year history. The 20-year-old Eritrean also made history as the race’s youngest-ever male winner, breaking the record previously held by Alberto Salazar (1980), Tom Fleming (1973), and Sheldon Karlin (1972), who all won as 22-year-olds.
Founded by Fred Lebow, the New York City Marathon was first held in 1970 with 127 competitors running loops around Central Park, a city attraction. From those humble beginnings, the annual race has grown to become the world’s largest marathon; this year’s edition saw more than 50,000 people from 120 countries participate in the race across the five boroughs (New York City, in the US state of New York, is composed of five boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island). Notably, hundreds of thousands of spectators were also in attendance, while the race was followed by millions more worldwide.
Ghirmay’s impressive win on Sunday, where he was rarely threatened, was just the latest in an extraordinary series of recent results by the talented youngster. In 2015, he won the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships held in China, becoming the youngest-ever winner, while at the recent Summer Olympics in Brazil he finished a highly-respectable fourth place. The latter result would surely have been even higher but for a slight, yet costly, blip he encountered during the race.
As the precocious youngster continues to blaze a trail of success, the question on many minds is just how far can he go? In sport, while reaching the pinnacle is a challenging task, remaining there can often prove to be much more difficult. Moreover, the world of sports is filled with innumerable cases of bright, young stars that quickly shot to prominence and success before fizzling out almost just as fast. Beyond the obvious factors, such as physical development, improvement, and training (and avoiding injuries, etc.), proper mindset and inner motivation are often critical.
Consider the case of Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, the three-time winner of the Balon d’Or as the world’s best player. The Portuguese superstar’s success and numerous accolades are not solely due to his considerable talent, but also the fruit of his sheer work ethic and relentless pursuit of perfection. Countless teammates, opponents, and analysts describe how Ronaldo today is almost unrecognizable from the wiry, flashy, more style than substance and often frustrating, winger who came to the world’s attention with Manchester United years ago. Driven by a passionate desire to be “the world’s best,” the young Ronaldo dedicated himself to constant improvement and development, spending extra hours on the training pitch, in the gym, and at recovery sessions. Such a dedicated approach helped transform him from a young boy with bags of talent, yet often lacking the final product, to the all-conquering, record-setting player that is now firmly entrenched within discussions about the greatest ever to play the game.
In this context, Ghirmay’s modesty and laser-like focus are encouraging. The young runner from unassuming, rural roots in the Zoba Debub region of Eritrea who ran several miles to school every day remains hungry, regularly speaks of achieving even greater things in the sport, and continues to follow a strict, punishing training regimen. Remarkably (or ominously for his competitors), many observers suggest that he is just scratching the surface of his potential and can still improve by leaps and bounds.
Another important aspect of Ghirmay’s rise to success is what it represents for his nation. In 2015, Ghirmay’s win at the World Championships in China 2015 was met with a massive nationwide celebration and he was welcomed back to the country with a colorful, music-filled parade in Asmara, the capital. The city’s streets were packed for hours as people jostled to get a glimpse of the young star.
For Eritrea, a young, low-income country located within the fractious Horn of Africa region, Ghirmay is a source of enormous inspiration and tremendous pride, as well as a great role model for many of the country’s impressionable youth.
After Sunday’s race, Ghirmay stated, “I am really proud with my victory today to be the first one from my country. Nobody before from Eritrea won in the major marathons.”
As Eritrea anxiously prepares to welcome back its conquering hero, millions of adoring fans hope his recent win is just the latest in a long, glorious career that is filled with many more.