Joshua Cheptegai, photo by NN Running team
This is the athlete picks, 5-1 by Deji Ogeyingbo, on the Top 10 African male athletes. I love his approach and thoughtfulness. I hope you do to!
Top 10 African male athletes in 2021 (5-1)
Last time out, we published our first part of our Top 10 African male athletes in 2021. Here’s Part 2 of the series where we highlight the achievements of the athletes that made it to the Top 5 on our shortlist.
Some of the markers we used in deciding our rankings include the athlete’s performances over the course of the season, records set, medals won at major championships, and their consistency all through the season.
5. Soufaine El Bakkali
Soufaine El Bakkali, photo by and copyright owned by AFP
You will have to be a special athlete to end the dominance of the Kenyans in the Steeplechase at the Olympics. Kenyan athletes had won 11 successive titles in the event, not counting the 1976 and 1980 years in which they boycotted the games. However, it was Moroccan, Soufiane El Bakkali who bucked the trend.
His 2021 season is a story of patience, one that also saw him take advantage of the opportunity that was handed to him, having played second fiddle for the better part of the last three years to the Kenyans in the 3000m steeplechase.
Although he competed in over the 1500m and 3000m this season, his eyes were fixated on the steeplechase. Interestingly, El Bakkali had only one race under his belt in the Steeplechase before the Olympics. That came at the Golden Gala in Italy in which he won comfortably in 8:08.54.
In Tokyo, after winning his heat by a canter, the Doha 2019 Bronze medallist moved to do the unthinkable in the final as in the absence of Kenya’s defending champion Conseslus Kipruto he became the first non-Kenyan to win the Olympic gold event since Poland’s BronisÅ‚aw Malinowski won the title in Moscow in 1980.
A month later, El Bakkali was outkicked by Benjamin Kigen in the final of the Diamond League in Zurich but he made amends in his final race of the season, by winning at the Kip Kieno Classic, the only continental gold tour in Africa.
4. Emmanuel Korir
Kenya’s Emmanual Korir has always been the near man in the men’s 800m at major championships until this year. Despite his phenomenal talent, Korir had that saw him dominate the circuit in the two-lap distance, he still did not have a gold medal to show for it.
In 2019 when he was preparing for the World Championships in Doha, Korir suffered an accident that sidelined him before he made a quick recovery. That meant he couldn’t get a medal in Doha. Last year, Korir was in top shape but then the Olympic Games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He however had a huge turnaround this year when he picked up the pieces and started his journey to Olympic gold. After finishing in third place at the Kenyan Olympic Trials in June, Korir looked to be in top form ever since. Beginning with a second-place finish at Diamond League Monaco in July (in a race with 10 other Olympians), Korir appeared to be on a mission in Tokyo.
He entered the Games with the second-best odds to win and proved worthy of that in the early rounds; he won his first-round heat by a canter, then cruised to a second-place finish in his semifinal heat.
In the final, the former UTEP national champion cemented his status as the best half-miler on the planet, winning the 800m gold medal in 1:45.06. Korir ended the season on a high note as he recaptured the men’s 800m Diamond League trophy he last won three years ago after clocking 1:44.56 to emerge top in Zurich, Switzerland.
3. Hugues Fabrice Zango
Hughes Fabrice Zango, photo by World Athletics
For a country that doesn’t tend to bask in the global limelight, Huges Fabrice Zango did just about enough to put Burkina Faso on the global map when he won their very first Olympic medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Prior to that, the signs that he was going to end the duck at the games came when he won a World Championships Bronze in Doha in 2019, but what assured most of his supporters was his magnificent display when competing in January this year.
Zango produced the first standout athletics moment of 2021 by sailing to a world indoor triple jump record of 18.07m in Aubiere. He added 15 centimeters to the previous record, set by his coach Teddy Tamgho back in 2011, and became the first man to leap beyond 18m indoors.
He followed that performance up with some 17m plus jumps in low-key indoor meets in France, all of which he won comfortably. That, perhaps ushered him into the outdoor season brimming with confidence. Zango put together a couple of wins in meets in Frace, Czech Republic, and Spain where he reached 17.83m.
At the games, he surprisingly didn’t have the best of series, but he did just enough to qualify for the final in 16.83. Zango still not in immense for landed a third-round effort of 17.47m and although some of the competitors tried to reel him in, that mark was enough to see him win bronze for his country. He also finished 2nd at the Diamond League final in Zurich.
2. Eluid Kipchoge
Eliud Kipchoge, NN Enschede Marathon, photo by NN Running Time
What else can be said about Eluid Kipchoge! He has taken marathon running to a different level and this year was just a pointer to how untouchable he is over the 42.19km course. Two races, two wins!
His first race of the year came in April as he sent a warning to his rivals ahead of the Tokyo Olympics by cruising to victory in the NN Mission Marathon in Enschede, the Netherlands. It was his first outing since a shock defeat at October’s London marathon, where he finished in eighth place.
Kipchoge actually had little to prove; his place on Kenya’s team for Tokyo had already been confirmed, as has his status as one of the all-time greats. So, this was a statement win.
At the Olympics, Kipchoge finished in 2:08.38, coming in one minute and 20 seconds ahead of Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands. Kipchoge’s triumph highlights Kenya’s dominance in the Olympic marathon in recent years, with the men winning gold at three of the past four games.
By virtue of the win, Kipchoge, joins Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila (1960 and 1964) and East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski (1976 and 1980) as the only runners to win back-to-back gold medals on the Olympic stage. The world record holder has now won four Olympic medals overall, having also taken 5,000m silver in 2008 and bronze in 2004.
There might still be arguments about Kipchoge being the greatest of all time when it comes to distance running, but if you narrow it down to the marathon alone, the Kenyan stands head and shoulders above the rest.
1. Joshua Cheptegei
Joshua Cheptegai, photo by NN Running team
Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei took the world by storm in 2020 when he broke both the men’s 5k and 10k records all in the space of two months. This year, however, he showed the world that he is as much a winner at a global championship as he is a record-breaker.
Cheptegei took the gold in the grueling men’s 5000m final at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, finishing ahead of Mohammed Ahmed of Canada, who took the silver, and Paul Chelimo of the United States who scooped the bronze.
The Doha 2019 World Champion over 10k won with a time of 12: 58.15, becoming the first Ugandan to win the event as he bagged the Olympic gold that has eluded him for so long. Many expected Cheptegei to go for a double gold by winning the 10k in Tokyo, but Cheptegei was not in the best shape as he settled for silver behind Ethiopian youngster Selemon Barega.
Although, he led the race briefly before dropping back into the pack and Barega seized his chance surging on the last lap to secure his surprise victory in 27:43.22 seconds ahead of the world champion Cheptegei in 27:43.63.
Without a doubt, Cheptegei will be going into next season buoyed by his performances this year, as he will most likely be gunning for double gold at the World Champs in Oregon.
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