By Nathan Vanderklippe
Friday August 6, 2021
Silver medalist Mohammed Ahmed of Canada celebrates with his national flag. ANDREW BOYERS/REUTERS
It took about 200 metres for Moh Ahmed to discard the strategy he had assembled for the next 13 minutes, his plan to end years of disappointment.
“I just wanted to push the race,” he said, “and go to the front and rip it.” Anticipating a slow pace, he wanted to take a commanding lead, to build a margin ahead of others he knew would finish strong. He wanted “to punish those guys a little bit.” Then he watched as Joshua Cheptegei, the Ugandan world record-holder, set a blistering pace from the start.
“I was like all right — it is on,” Ahmed said. “So I just tried patient. Stay patient and stay smooth.”
A younger man might have struggled to hold back. But Ahmed is 30, a veteran. At the beginning of the Olympics, his high school coach texted to remind him: you started down this path 16 years ago. Now, the others fear you. Just go out and deliver.Deliver he did.
Lap after lap, he held back, content to be in eighth, then ninth, then seventh, then fifth and then, in the final lap, a long-striding flight through the final metres that brought him across the finish in second place, with a time of 12.58.61.
“I honestly wasn’t thinking a whole lot in that race. I was just telling myself small cues. I’m saying in my head to just stay tough, stay tough, fight — little stuff like that. And when I crossed the finish line, that’s really when it was real. But I had to run right through the line.”
He was a half-second behind gold medal-winner Cheptegei, the world record holder. U.S. runner Paul Chelimo took bronze.
Four years ago he said he was sick of being the man with the “best Canadian finish.” He wanted to be counted on the world’s stage.
That’s where he found himself in Tokyo, the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal in the men’s 5,000 or 10,000 metres.
Standing on the podium Friday night, Ahmed, who was born in Mogadishu and came to Canada at the age of 11, buried his head in his hands, disbelief washing over him.
“I’ve wanted that my whole life,” he said. He wanted it when he watched the 2004 Olympics, with Kenenisa Bekele and Hicham El Guerrouj battling for supremacy. He wanted it in Rio de Janeiro where his fourth-place finish left him shedding “tears of agony and defeat.”
Most of all, he wanted it in Japan, when he could see the suffering in his competitors’ strides in the final minutes. He felt the pain, too, a hurt that had accumulated over years. “I have a lot of frustration and a lot of disappointments in my body over these last five years,” he said. “So I knew that last 200 meters that I was going to summon that — that pain to like, ‘not again.”
Fellow Canadian Justyn Knight finished in seventh. The two men ran together for much of the race, one in front of the other, each holding the rail to conserve their steps.
“There’s no team strategy,” Knight said. “He “knows I’m a smart runner and I know that he’s a smart runner. So I think there was some comfort running either behind each other or in front of each other.”
Knight, who failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics after spending a sleepless night downloading a new Drake album, leavened the disappointment at his Tokyo finish with a lyric from his favourite musician: “I’m the rookie and the vet.”
“That’s kind of how I felt here, like it’s my first Olympics. But I’ve been to many senior championships already,” Knight said. Even so, “you got to lose to learn how to win. Moh can tell you all about that.”
For other Canadian Olympians, too, Ahmed’s race brought instant inspiration. Minutes after Ahmed won silver, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford finished fifth in her 1,500-metre final.
She told herself not to be upset by this one disappointment.
“Moh did the same, many years of disappointments, fourth, fifth places,” she said. “Today he got a silver, and that was amazing. And I just have to channel that hunger and that patience.”