He is the Canadian record holder and North America’s fastest 5,000-metre runner of all time. And now, he’s an Olympic medallist.
Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., charged to the finish line to earn silver on Friday in Tokyo, posting a time of 12 minutes 58.61 seconds on a hot and humid evening at Olympic Stadium.
“Relieved, just relieved,” he said after the race. “That last 100 metres I wish I was a little bit closer to challenge [new Olympic champion Joshua] Cheptegei for the gold. But to come out here after five years of waiting for this, I’m delighted and elated.”
Ahmed made his move about 500 metres from the finish line, closed the gap on the lead pack around the bend and began his pursuit for a podium finish at the top of the straightaway.
He passed Kenya’s Nicholas Kimeli and American Paul Chelimo on the inside before crossing the line behind Cheptegei, the world record holder from Uganda. The 2019 world champion was 46-100ths of a second ahead of Ahmed while Chelimo, who won Olympic silver five years ago in Rio, was third in a season-best 12:59.05 after he nearly tripped in the final 400 metres.
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Toronto’s Justyn Knight finished seventh in his Olympic debut, stopping the clock in 13:04.38, more than 22 seconds faster than his 10th-place finish at the world championships two years ago in Doha, Qatar.
Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, also from Toronto, led early in the women’s 1,500 final and sat third for a brief period before placing fifth in 3:58.93 at her first Olympics.
A week ago, Ahmed appeared headed for his first Olympic medal but faded before the straightaway and crossed the line sixth in the men’s 10,000, matching his result from 2019 worlds.
The 30-year-old overtook eventual gold medallist Selemon Barega of Ethiopia for the lead inside the final two laps but Barega was back in front with 400 metres left at the bell lap. With his eyes bulging and gritting his teeth, Ahmed gave every ounce of energy over the final metres but couldn’t hold pace and clocked 27:47.76, not far off his 26:59.35 national record from worlds.
Expected slow pace
“To come back, especially after the disappointment of [last week’s] 10,000, to kind of go over the exact same thing that happened in Rio [at the 2016 Olympics] — having a disappointing 10,000 and trying to gather myself for the [5,000] — it was tough,” said Ahmed, who trains with Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Ore.
“I told my brother, ‘I can’t believe I’m going through this again. I envisioned [Friday’s race] a lot differently and to get through it with a medal just tells me that I’m tough, that I can keep taking these tough, tough battles and still perform to the highest level.”
Ahmed, who ran a Canadian-best 12:47.20 at an intrasquad meet on July 10, 2020, was expecting a slow pace on Friday and planned to sit near the back of the pack before making a move in an attempt to pass his 15 competitors.
“The Ugandans [Jacob Kiplimo and Cheptegei] went out to the front and played team tactic and they almost came away with two medals,” he said. “I just kind of on the fly came up with a new idea, a new strategy, and most of it was just like, ‘Hold on, stay smooth.'”
Ahmed, who started running track as a 13-year-old, was inspired seeing track athletes on television at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as Canadian sprint kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who won gold and bronze medals at those Games.
Childhood dream of being an Olympian
“Watching all those races, I had goosebumps,” Ahmed recalled last November in an interview with CBC Sports. “In my Grade 8 yearbook, I wrote ‘Olympian’ as my future occupation. I didn’t know what that meant, but it’s the fact I was inspired and held on to that [dream].”
Ahmed realized his Olympic dream in 2012 in London and four years later in Rio finished fourth in the 5,000.
Meanwhile, first-time Olympian Knight grabbed the lead off the line Friday with former NCAA rival Grant Fisher of the United States, staying close before Kiplimo, who won bronze in the 10,000 earlier at these Games, took control through 1,000 metres. The Canadian got as high as fifth but didn’t have a late kick to threaten the lead group in only his third 5,000 of the season.
On June 10, Ahmed and Knight became the two fastest North American 5,000 runners of all time when they reached the finish line in 12:50.12 and 12:51.93, respectively, at the Golden Gala Diamond League meet in Florence, Italy.
Knight, 25, was disappointed by his showing at 2019 worlds, even though his success in qualifying for the event left him feeling tired, and immediately improved his nutrition and trained with marathoners, doing tempo runs — running a pace you can maintain for about 60 minutes — and hill workouts.
“The important takeaway [from the world final] was never falling off the lead pack,” he told CBC Sports in June from his apartment in Charlottesville, Va., where he lives and trains with Reebok Boston Track Club. “I knew I could do better. You can’t be comfortable with being mediocre. I’m a lot stronger heading into the [Olympics], have matured a lot mentally, and my confidence is a lot higher than two years ago.”
Missed ’16 Olympic standard by 1.36 seconds
After deciding not to race last year in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Knight opened his 2021 campaign indoors with a world-leading and personal-best time of 8:13.92 in a two-mile race in New York, two weeks before an effortless 3:36.62 in the 1,500 outdoors at the Texas Qualifier extended his win streak to five dating to Jan. 25, 2020 in New York City.
While Knight didn’t reach the podium on Friday, he has come a long way since missing the 2016 Olympic standard by 1.36 seconds while starring as a 19-year-old track and cross-country runner at Syracuse University.
On the women’s side, DeBues-Stafford delivered a 3:58.28 effort in Wednesday’s Olympic final qualifier and has now dipped under four minutes four times in her career after becoming the first Canadian woman to do so on Aug. 29, 2019, in the Diamond League Final.
In Friday’s race, the 25-year-old lost her grip on third when Laura Muir, her former training partner in Scotland, passed her and later caught 2020 Olympic 5,000 champion Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands to win silver in a national record 3:54.50 for Great Britain.
Faith Kipyegon of Kenya successfully defended her Olympic 1,500 title in 3:53, taking down Romanian Paula Iven’s 3:53.96 Games record from 1988 in the process.
Hassan earned bronze in 3:55.86 but will have fewer than 24 hours to recover for the 10,000 final on Saturday at 6:45 a.m. ET, a race also featuring Canadian record holder Andrea Seccafien.
Comeback for Canada’s DeBues-Stafford
Early in 2020, DeBues-Stafford wondered if she would ever regain the 2019 form that led to eight national records and 11 personal-best times.
Fresh off an altitude training camp in South Africa, the Canadian runner set indoor marks in the 1,500 and women’s mile on Feb. 8 at the Millrose Games in New York City but was “burned out emotionally and broken physically” following an extensive year of travel.
“I could barely walk, let alone run, without a limp,” DeBues-Stafford told CBC Sports a few months later. “I felt so weak and powerless in those races [and it] really hung over my psyche.”
Questioning her ability to rebound on the track only fuelled DeBues-Stafford’s anxiety, but she was her “old self” again earlier this year. She opened her outdoor 1,500 season with a confidence-boosting victory at the Texas Qualifier in Austin and hasn’t stopped.
On May 29, DeBues-Stafford went 1:58.70 in the 800 to become the first Canadian woman to break two minutes in the event, four minutes in the 1,500 and 15 minutes in the 5,000 — a performance bookended by a pair of 1,500s threatening the four-minute barrier.
“The biggest takeaway was the relief of feeling strong and in control in a race again,” she said of racing in Texas.
Months later, the feeling extended to Tokyo, where DeBues-Stafford said she felt comfortable, smooth, confident and “in the shape of my life.”