Dia Ba beats the unbeatable to claim Senegal's only medal

Andre Phillips #1120 of the United States dips across the line winning Men's 400m Hurdles and setting a new Olympic record against Amadou Dia Ba #898 of Senegal and Edwin Moses #1114 at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games (Photo by Russell Cheyne/Getty Images)
Andre Phillips #1120 of the United States dips across the line winning Men's 400m Hurdles and setting a new Olympic record against Amadou Dia Ba #898 of Senegal and Edwin Moses #1114 at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games (Photo by Russell Cheyne/Getty Images)

While winning an Olympic medal is a personal goal for thousands of athletes, for 24 nations it is a dream that has only ever come true once. Tokyo2020.org looks at the glorious moment and the impact it had on the lives of the athletes who achieved it.

The background

Four years before the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, Senegal’s Amadou Dia Ba had already come close to putting his country on the list of nations to have won an Olympic medal. In the men’s 400m hurdles final at Los Angeles 1984, Dia Ba clocked 49.28 to finish fifth, just a second behind the bronze medal winner. That day, Team USA legend Ed Moses won his second Olympic gold medal, continuing his unbeaten streak.

With four years until the next Olympics, a 25-year-old Dia Ba was convinced he could win a medal, learning from the mistakes he made at the 1984 Games.

“I was new and I made some mistakes that could have been avoided,” he told BBC Africa.

“Together with my coach, we started to work hard to claim the medal. In 1984, I missed my chance. Before the 1988 Olympics, I was well set: when time comes, we’ll aim for a medal.”

In the meantime, Dia Ba collected three more continental gold medals and took fifth at the 1987 World Championships, where Ed Moses won gold. Again.

“During the four year period from LA 1984 to Seoul 1988, I competed against the same runners in every event: Ed Moses, Andre Philips and the Germans Harald Schmid and Edgar Itt. We knew each other very well.”

History in the making

“In every Olympics, in every event, there is always a top 5 or top 10 athlete who legitimately aims for a medal. In 1988, I was one of them.”

Indeed, Dia Ba was.

On 25 September, Dia Ba stood alongside his fellow competitors at Seoul 1988. None of the usual suspects had failed to make the event. However, there was a new face on show in 22-year-old American Kevin Young.

Dia Ba was in lane five and had a new strategy.

“This race is so technical that you can’t say ‘let’s try’. It’s a hit or miss. I wanted to use my usual strategy with 13 strides between each hurdle until the 8th, but my coach decided to change after the 6th to finish the race with 14 strides. In that way, I would be faster. But at first, it slowed me down.”

Before the last hurdle Dia Ba was third. The bronze medal was his for the taking. Moses and Philips were leading the race, but a fantastic landing after the final hurdle saw Dia Ba close the gap on Moses, who had been unbeaten since 1977.

Dia Ba’s final strides and dip at the line almost gave him Olympic glory. In the end, he won silver, Moses took bronze and Philips claimed gold by 0.04 seconds.

Amadou Dia Ba at the ANOC Athlete's Commission Meeting during the 21st ANOC General Assembly on November 13, 2016 in Doha, Qatar (Photo by Steve Welsh Getty Images for ANOC)
Amadou Dia Ba at the ANOC Athlete's Commission Meeting during the 21st ANOC General Assembly on November 13, 2016 in Doha, Qatar (Photo by Steve Welsh Getty Images for ANOC)
2016 Getty Images

Life-changing impact

Dia Ba clocked a personal best of 47.23 to win Senegal’s first and only Olympic medal. The time also remains a national record.

Kevin Young took fourth before going on to win gold at Barcelona 1992 in a time of 46.78 that remains a world record until this day.

For the Senegalese runner, the 1988 Olympic final showcased the sport’s golden generation.

"We were like a golden generation. At that time, Moses was the best runner in the world but there was also Philipps, Schmid, me and Young."

His Olympic medal was also the greatest moment of his career: "If you step on an Olympic podium, you have earned the right to celebrate the fact you came first, second or third. A medal is like reaching a summit. This is what we aim for in the Olympics."

After that stunning performance, Dia Ba was never able to reach the same level again due to an Achilles tendon injury. He retired from sport altogether after Barcelona 1992.