Zersenay Tadese: From cycling to breaking records in athletics

DEBRECEN, HUNGARY - OCTOBER 08:  Tadesse Zersenay of Eritrea celebrates with his flag after crossing the line in first place in the mens race during the IAAF World Road Running Championships on October 8, 2006 in Debrecen, Hungary.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
DEBRECEN, HUNGARY - OCTOBER 08: Tadesse Zersenay of Eritrea celebrates with his flag after crossing the line in first place in the mens race during the IAAF World Road Running Championships on October 8, 2006 in Debrecen, Hungary. (Photo by Julian Finney/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

Zersenay Tadese was born in Eritrea in 1982 when his country was in the grip of a 30-year conflict.

However Tadese had the luck to be less affected by the war as thousands of others, as his family lived 200km away from Asmara, the capital.

When he was a child, Tadese had a dream to become a legendary road cyclist and win the Tour de France.

"I dreamed of being a cycling professional with one of the great teams in Europe," he told World Athletics. "I would have loved to have ridden in a big race like the Tour de France. I won a number of races, mainly over distances of 30km to 50km."

After a while he caught the attention of several athletes who saw him compete. It was at this moment he decided to give a shot at running.

"My success at cycling suggested to some local athletics people that I might have good stamina, and they invited me to compete in a race," he said. "I won that race and I did well in my following races, so I carried on running."

He never stopped.

In 2002, Tadese began to compete at international level, finishing 6th in the 10,000m at the African Athletics Championships, before finishing in the top 30 at the Cross Country World Championships.

A year later he competed in three different disciplines at the World Championships: track (5,000m), cross-country and road (half-marathon), and finished in the top 10 in all three.

He then underwent intense preparation for his first Olympic Games: Athens 2004.

History in the making

The Eritrean National Olympic Committee was created in 1996.

The small African country of over six million inhabitants sent three athletes to compete in Sydney 2000 and four years later sent four athletes to Greece - among them was 22-year-old Tadesse, who was set to compete in both the 5,000m and 10,000m events.

First up was the 10,000m.

With a personal best of 27:32.61 achieved a couple of months earlier, Tadese entered the Games full of optimism. However a small problem remained: he would line up in the race alongside double Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie and Kenesisa Bekele, a rising star of long distance - both from Ethiopia.

It was a tough place to shine.

With nothing to lose, Tadese made his way into the leading group before Bekele and his compatriot Sileshi Sihine took off with 1,500m remaining. However Tadese increased his pace at the end to claim an historic third place. Gebrselassie finished 5th.

As Tedese crossed over the line he also went straight into the Eritrean record books, just eight years after the formation of the Eritrean NOC.

The outcome

Eight days later, he took the 7th place in the 5,000m event.

Although he never managed to claim another Olympic medal, he went on to become an athletic star: he won three half marathon world titles (2008, 2009 and 2012) and one in cross-country (2007).

In 2009, Tadese became the second runner in history to hold three World Championship medals on three different surfaces; he claimed bronze in cross-country, silver in 10,000m and gold in half-marathon. Only Paul Tergat from Kenya had achieved that feat before him.

He also held the half marathon world record for eight consecutive years, from 2010 until 2018, with a time of 58:23.

Tadese recently competed in the marathon at the World Athletics Championships 2019 in Doha, and finished 6th.