Brilliant Barega strikes gold as Olympic athletics underway

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Ethiopian distance runner Selemon Barega stormed to a brilliant 10,000m victory to claim the first gold medal of a spectator-less Olympic athletics competition at the Tokyo Games on Friday.

Barega, 21, ran a superb tactical race to hold off world champion Joshua Cheptegei and Ugandan compatriot Jacob Kiplimo to win in 27min 43.22sec. Cheptegei took silver in 27:43.63, with Kiplimo third.

It completed a subdued start to the 10-day track and field competition, which got under way in a mostly empty 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium with spectators barred due to Covid-19 restrictions.

"It was very challenging to compete without spectators," said Barega, who draped himself in an Ethiopian flag he had been given before travelling to Japan.

"I was able to take a flag from home that meant a lot to me. When I was running I also imagined that the seats in the stadium were full of fans!"

Barega's upset win was a rare blip on a first day that largely followed the form book as athletes adjusted to the unique surroundings of this year's pandemic-delayed competition.

Unrelenting high-tempo music, screeching cicadas and the odd cry of encouragement provided the soundtrack at the sparsely populated arena.

But the ghostly atmosphere did not faze Jamaica's history-chasing Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who safely negotiated the first round of the 100m.

The Netherlands' long-distance star Sifan Hassan also advanced in the 5,000m, while Venezuela's triple jump world champion Yulimar Rojas eased into Sunday's final.

However there was an upset in the 4x400 relay, an event making its Olympic debut, when the powerful United States' quartet was disqualified for an illegal changeover.

- 'Really difficult' -

American teenager Athing Mu -- a gold medal hope in the 800m -- played down the lack of fans after winning her morning heat.

"I've never been to an Olympics so I don't know how the stadium would be if it was packed with people," she told AFP.

"But then again I've run a couple of meets in the collegiate season where we didn't have spectators allowed so it was kind of the same."

And Australian high jumper Brandon Starc said he was unconcerned by the empty rows in the cavernous stadium.

"I don't really worry about it," said the Commonwealth champion. "I can't do anything about it, so why focus on that?"

But Qatar's 400m hurdler Abderrahman Samba said it was "really, really difficult. I really missed the crowd".

The lack of fans provided no hindrance to Jamaica sprint queen Fraser-Pryce, who would become the oldest women's 100m champion in history if she wins Saturday's final.

The 34-year-old is also aiming to become the first woman to win a single individual Olympic athletics event three times, to add to the 100m victories she claimed in 2008 and 2012.

- Fast track -

Fraser-Pryce sailed through to the semi-finals in 10.84 seconds, easing up well before the finish line.

The Jamaican veteran is the fastest woman over 100m this year, clocking 10.63sec in June and believes she can go faster in Tokyo.

"If you notice the heats, there's some really quick running," she said. "It's definitely a fast track."

Her compatriot Elaine Thompson-Herah is the defending champion in both the 100 and 200m, and surged through her heat in temperatures of 34 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit).

It was a similar tale for Britain's Dina Asher-Smith, world 200m champion and silver medallist in the 100m in Doha in 2019, and Ivory Coast's Marie-Josee Ta Lou, the latter in an African record 10.78sec.

- Hurdles favourites advance -

One of the headline events of the Olympic track events is the men's 400m hurdles, trumpeted as a battle royale between two-time world champion Karsten Warholm of Norway and American rival Rai Benjamin.

Warholm, who this month ran 46.70sec to break Kevin Young's world record from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, eased up to win his heat in 48.65sec.

Benjamin, world silver medallist behind Warholm at the 2019 world championships in Doha, followed suit.

Also qualifying with no problem were podium contenders Alison Dos Santos of Brazil and Qatar's sub-47sec performer Samba.

American Juvaughn Harrison got his bid to become the first athlete to win medals in the men's high jump and long jump at the same Games since 1912 off to a good start by advancing from the high jump qualification round.


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