Deji Ogeyingbo wrote this fine piece on Ethiopia’s steeplechase superstar, Lamecha Girma.
Lamecha Girma misses out in Lausanne, and still remains the only runner that can halt the momentum of Soufiane El Bakkali.
How do you beat a man like Soufiane El Bakkali? There was a massive 12 seconds between the Moroccan world and Olympic Champion and the next runner in second after he crossed the line at the Diamond League in Lausanne. It was El Bakkali’s fifth race and second fastest time of the year. Those five races have all been wins, with the most important of them his penultimate race. It came in Oregon at the World championships, one that meant he became the world champion for the very first time.
The last man to beat El Bakkali over the Steeplechase was Conseslus Kipruto. And you would have to go way back to almost one year ago when the Kenyan usurped him by 0.04s in the Diamond League final in Zurich in 2021. Still, El Bakkali’s win in Oregon ensured he snapped Kenya’s streak of seven consecutive world titles in the event, including Kipruto’s run of two straight championships. The Moroccan looks unstoppable.
In this era of the men’s Steeplechase, breaking the eight-minute mark seemed a daunting task. El Bakkali is the only runner to have achieved this feat twice. In 2018-when, the ran his Personal Best of 7:58.15 in Monaco, and this year when he ran a blistering 7:58.15 on home soil at the Diamond League meet in Rabat. Before that, you would have to go way back to 2015 when Jarius Birech of Kenya ran 7:58.83.
However, only one man can stand shoulder to shoulder with El Bakkali at this age. Lamecha Girma is the young Ethiopian who is on the verge of dethroning the newly-minted world champion. Girma is a maverick whose talent belies his age. The Ethiopian has run inside eight minutes three times this year already. And he’s only 21 years of age.
Born in Assela, the same area that produced stars such as Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Derartu Tulu, Girma came into the limelight at a very young age. Once his primary school teachers noticed his unusual size and power in sport, he was urged to head to the capital city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to train alongside more developed athletes.
Girma then moved to the Youth Sports Academy in Addis Ababa to be coached by Teshome Kebede, the national coach for the steeplechase, and to train alongside Getnet Wale and a couple of other promising middle-distance runners. Since then, Girma has been on an upward trajectory, and it’s just a matter of time before the takes over the reins as the best steeplechaser in the world. It could come as soon as the Diamond League final in Zurich in September.
Girma currently trails El Bakkali in their head-to-head 7-2 in their nine meetings since they first locked horns in August 2019 in Paris. It was a baptism of fire for Girma, who was up against a field of global medallists, including world and Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto. Although nervous from the start, something he didn’t seem to show, Girma was eventually out-kicked by El Bakkali and Benjamin Kigen in the closing stages, but his third-place finish in 8:08.63 was a noteworthy Diamond League debut and showed that he was a star in the making.
Perhaps the greatest indication of his immense talent came when Girma got his two wins against El Bakkali at the world championships in Doha. Girma beat Bakkali as he won his heat in 8:16.64. He may have been a novice and a promising one at that, but the Ethiopian knew that the final would be the toughest challenge of his young career.
In the final in Doha, Girma once again proved his credentials as he came up against Kipruto and El Bakkali. With one lap to go inside the Khalifa international stadium, El Bakkali moved into the lead, but Girma kicked to the front with 200m remaining. Kipruto then moved past the Moroccan into second place and in pursuit of Girma. The two men flew over the final barrier, with Girma still managing to hold a slight advantage over the Olympic champion.
And on the home straight, Kipruto was able to beat Girma by the narrowest of margins in what remains the closest ever finish in the steeplechase at the World Championships; Girma took the silver medal behind the Kenyan in a then senior Ethiopian record of 8:01.36.
Two years later, Girma has lowered that record to 7:58.68, a time he set when he claimed victory at the Golden Spike in Ostrava. And in the space of nine days, the precocious Ethiopian ran 7:59.24 in Rabat and 7:59.23 in Rome. It was the race in Rabat in which Girma seemed to have gotten rattled by the crowd in El Bakkali’s hometown.
Earlier in the season, Girma won Silver in the 3000m at the world indoor championships in Belgrade. It put him in good shape ahead of the outdoor season, and the Ethiopian is beginning to reap the dividends.
Still aged just 21– he’ll turn 22 in November – there is now a certain level of expectation placed on his young shoulders to live up to the standards other greats from his hometown had achieved. Turning Silver to Gold at the world level will be top of Girma’s priority. But for now, his eyes would be fixed on the Diamond League final in Zurich as he hopes to claim yet another scalp of El Bakkali. The stars are beginning to align for El Bakkali.