That a Frenchman would win the steeplechase was never in doubt, but would it be the veteran, Bob Tahri, or the young star Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad? That question wasn’t decided until the last 50 meters of the race when both men, running well under championships record pace, hurdled the final barrier side by side. But as soon as Mekhissi-Benabbad touched down on the sky-blue track, he scooted away from Tahri who appeared not to react. Mekhissi-Benabbad stopped the clock at 8:07.87, wiping away Franceco Panetta’s 20 year-old championships record of 8:12.66 set in Split. Tahri, the 2009 IAAF World Championships bronze medallist, had to settle for second in 8:09.28.
“Before the race as a team we planned to run together for 400 meters, ” Mekhissi-Benabbad said through a translator. “But the way it turned out we ran all the way to the end. Today, it was I who won the race. But both of us are at the same level, so it is a victory for France.”
The duel between the Frenchmen didn’t interest the Spanish crowd, however. More than ten seconds behind the leaders, the Spaniard José Luis Blanco was battling with Moldova’s Ion Luchianov for third place. Blanco, his hair dyed a golden blonde, passed Luchianov on the backstretch of the last lap, then held him off after the final barrier to get the bronze. He said that the partisan crowd really helped him.
“Running against Tahri and Mekhissi, the best athletes in Europe, it was an absolutely amazing result for me,” the Spaniard said at the post-race press conference through a translator. “I was hoping to get a medal today, but I would have to say the crowd in the stadium really helped me. Every time I took somebody there was a huge roar that came up from the stadium, and I think that really pushed me to get the bronze.”
The women in the 5,000-meter final decided to run hard from the gun, unlike the athletes in the men’s final at the same distance last night. Russia’s Mariya Konovalova became the de facto pacemaker, leading a group of six women through the first kilometer in 2:57.58 and the second in 5:55.55. Behind Konovalova, the Portuguese duo of Jessica Augusto and Sara Moreira, both doubling back after the 10,000-meter final on Wednesday, were joined by Turks Alemitu Bekele and Elvan Abeylegesse, the 10,000-meter champion. Augusto took over the lead at 3K (8:57.08), Konovalova drifted off the pace, and it became clear that the medallists would come from this group.
At the bell, all four women were still in contention, but as they progressed down the backstretch, Augusto drifted off the back. Bekele turned on the speed before the penultimate turn, passed Abeylegesse, and shot down the homestretch to win in a championships record of 14:52.20. Abeylegesse got the silver (14:54.44) and Moreira, who had dropped out of the 10,000 meters, the bronze (14:54.71).
“Yes, I knew it,” said Bekele when asked if she felt that she would win the race when she made her decisive move.
For Moreira, who set a personal best, she said that dropping out of the 10,000 was a strategic decision because she knew that she had a better chance at a medal in the shorter race.
“I always knew that the 5,000 was my main competition here in Barcelona,” Moreira said with the help of a translator. “And, I always believed it was in the 5,000. I stopped running the 10,000 because it was a strategic ‘quit’ because I thought it was better to stay quiet for a better chance in the 5,000.”
In the final distance race of the championships, the Spanish got to see two of their best women, Natalia Rodríguez and Nuria Fernández, compete in the 1,500-meter final. It was a very important race for them. Not only were they running for the home-country crowd, but both women missed getting medals at last summer’s IAAF World Championships: Rodríguez was disqualified after finishing the race first for shoving Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka to the track, and Fernández finished fourth after Rodríguez’s disqualification. Tonight, they both medalled, led by Fernández who blazed the last 50 meters to emerge from the pack to get the win in a personal best 4:00.20. Rodríguez clinched the bronze in a season’s best 4:01.30, while Frenchwoman Hind Dehiba was sandwiched between them in 4:01.17.
“It’s absolutely phenomenal to win a medal here in Spain,” Fernández said in Spanish. “Absolutely incredible. “I still can’t believe I got the gold medal. It’s something quite fantastic.”
Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey, last summer’s world championships silver medallist, finished a close fourth to Rodríguez in 4:01.54. She just couldn’t catch the Spaniard in the final meters.
“I really went out today to race to win,” Dobriskey told Race Results Weekly. “It was kind of gold or nothing, really. I was a lot more aggressive and made my way a lot earlier than normal. I just didn’t have the legs in the finishing straight that I would normally have if I had run a more conservative race. You know, it’s a bit disappointing to come away with nothing, but really, head and heart, gave it 100%.”