Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad won the men’s steeplechase title but was later stripped of his medal.
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ZURICH, Switzerland — With 200 meters to go in the men’s steeplechase final at the 21st European Championships here Thursday night, Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad had a comfortable lead. The tall Frenchman, twice an Olympic silver medalist and the two-time defending champion at these championships, simply needed to coast home to claim gold once again, a medal his team and fans were counting on.
But while exiting the final turn, Mekhissi-Benabbad suddenly ripped off his uniform top, placed it in his mouth, spread his arms, looked up at the crowd at the Letzigrund and encouraged their cheers. He cleared the final barrier with the uniform still in his mouth, and crossed the finish line first in 8:25.30. Still shirtless, he then sprawled on the track on his back while his French teammate, Yoann Kowal, outsprinted Poland’s Krystian Zalewski to claim silver, 8:26.66 to 8:27.11. Well back, Spain’s Ángel Mullera struggled mightily to finish fourth.
“Very, very happy,” Mullera said just after the race. “No problem.”
Mullera is certainly happier now after being promoted to the bronze medal position after Mekhissi-Benabbad was stripped of his gold medal for his shirt-removing stunt. Initially, the Frenchman was given a “yellow card” under IAAF rule 125.5 for unsportsmanlike conduct, a slap on the wrist that doesn’t change the order of finish. Mekhissi-Benabbad even tweeted a selfie from under the stadium with Kowal and Zalewski to further celebrate his victory.
But the Spanish team filed a protest, and about an hour after the race Mekhissi-Benabbad was disqualified under IAAF rule 142.4c, which states that “an athlete failed to compete honestly with bona fide effort.” The French team counter-protested, but the Jury of Appeal rejected that counter protest, and the disqualification was confirmed.
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Mekhissi-Benabbad explained himself via his Facebook page. He wrote, in part (in French with computer translation): “No one can remove my victory and the sensation and felt absolute happiness in crossing the finish line. Sorry I thought just celebrated my victory as a football player, there’s no arrogance to my opponents and the public.”
Mekhissi-Benabbad had planned to double back in the 1500m (the preliminary round is Friday morning), but he said, again via social media, that now he probably wouldn’t.
“At the time it is, I don’t know if I’ll start in the 1500m tomorrow morning, I don’t have the morale. Whatever happens, I will respect the decision of the judges.”
Before the disqualification, Kowal was overjoyed with his silver medal. He told IAAF interviewers “After the lap of honor I asked my girlfriend Marianne Coste to marry me and she said yes!” He did not speak with the media after the disqualification.
In the other middle distance event contested Thursday, the women’s 800m semifinals, Maryna Arzamasova of Belarus and Lynsey Sharp of Great Britain won their respective heats to advance to the final. Arzamasova had the fastest time (2:00.36), but Sharp led her race from gun to tape and looked unpressed.
“Yeah, I just felt really good,” said the 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medalist. “Obviously, It wasn’t that fast a pace, which I was kind of surprised. I thought they might push it on. But, I just sort of had to run my own race and just stay calm.”
Sharp’s teammate Jessica Judd also advanced, finishing third in the same heat. She told reporters that the seven medals Britain had already earned here had given her an additional motivational jolt.
“I felt I had to come out and do my best because I couldn’t let the team down,” she said.