A night of firsts as athletics finally underway at 2020 Olympics

Selemon Barega wins first athletics gold inside a virtually empty Olympic Stadium

Even with countless tales already written into the long annals of Games history there may never be another night of so many firsts, ending here with the first athletics gold medal won inside a virtually empty Olympic Stadium.

That honour went to Selemon Barega, the 21 year-old from Ethiopia who duly celebrated his victory in the 10,000 metres with a quick sprint onto the infield, where he mimicked the exact routine of Abebe Bikila after he had won the marathon for Ethiopia inside this same stadium in 1964. Incredible to see - Barega's final km of 2:25 also the fastest in Olympic history, enough to hold off race favourite Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda.

In the hour before that, there was a first Olympic staging of the mixed 4x400m relay, a new event for 2021, where the Irish quartet of Cillin Greene, Phil Healy, Sophie Becker and Chris O'Donnell - all four first-time Olympians - reached a first Olympic relay final in Irish athletics history. Is that too many firsts for you?

First the USA, and then the Dominican Republic were both disqualified for faulty handovers during that semi-final, although both teams were later reinstated following an appeal. Ireland’s time was enough to see them through anyway after improving their national record by four seconds to 3:12.88.


Evidence no less that anything can happen in the relay, Saturday’s eight-team final starts at 1.35pm Irish time.

“Yeah, we had it all played out, that the Americans and the Dominicans had a very strong team, they could be in the lead, but what a leg by Cillin, he totally stood up, his first relay,” said Healy. “He totally took over and showed them his class, gave me the baton first. An Olympic final is unbelievable, four seconds off the national record, surreal at this stage.

Becker added after running the second leg: “My head was just saying ‘maintain our position’ and I kept going strong and I passed it over to Chris and he ran a belter of a leg.”

Which he did: "Yeah a few elbows, but the three guys in front of me did the job, I just had to bring it home, and I like the challenge of the last leg," O'Donnell said. "The three guys set me up, and I'm just happy to bring it home. Our coach Drew Harrison said if we all performed out if our skin we'd run 3:14, well we ran 3:12, so he might be getting sacked in the morning."

For Greene another first too, his first ever first leg in a mixed relay: “Yeah my first ever leg of a relay, I just tried to execute the same race plan, go out quite conservative, but put ourselves in a position where if I gave the baton to Phil we could use our momentum, and thankfully that’s exactly what happened, and I’m absolutely delighted.”

Even if most of the 64,000 seats were empty, the stadium was still softly buzzing, a small section next to the masses of TV crews reserved for the track and field athletes who either had or were about to compete themselves: the chosen few it seemed, a few dozen more raising some noise and flags while spread out thinly down the backstretch next to the jumps pit.

And after waiting an extra year to actually write this, athletics is officially underway at the 2020 Olympics with Friday's morning session, Thomas Barr straight into the thick of it. With the 400 metres hurdles likely to be among the most hotly contested events of the lot in here over the nine days, Barr had to produce something assured and confident in his heat, which is exactly what he did - nailing second place behind recent world record breaker Karsten Warholm of Norway.

That got Barr into Sunday's semi-final, where he's again drawn against Warholm, plus the top American Benjamin Rai: only the top two, and two fastest losers, will progress to the final. Warholm, who ran a world record of 46.70 seconds a few weeks ago, was on his outside, and won in 48.65, Barr second in 49.03.

“It’s a matter of the semi-final, it’s going to be a final, really, the two first and two fastest to qualify. I have to get myself into really good position and treat it as if it’s the final, see where it gets us.

“I think it’s going to take my PB (47.97) or near enough to get into the final, that’s what I’m thinking and that’s what I’m aiming for - nearly a full second or more off what I ran today. I think it’s achievable, whether or not it happens on race day is another thing but I like the conditions.”

No such joy earlier in the morning session for the three Irish women who had qualified for Tokyo in the 800 metres. Nadia Power, Louise Shanahan and Síofra Cléirigh Büttner were eliminated over three successive heats in the steamy heat of the Tokyo morning.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics