Muslim medal winners at the year’s biggest track meet

Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola

Track and field’s most prominent stages have been on shaky ground for the last few years. And that’s not just because the sport lost its biggest superstar when Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt retired, but also due to a global pandemic throwing track’s marquee events in flux.

The Summer Olympics, originally scheduled for 2020 but postponed due to COVID-19, were held in Tokyo in 2021 in front of limited crowds and drew historically low TV ratings. Moving the Olympics back of course impacted the World Athletics Championships — traditionally held biennially in odd-numbered years — which got switched from 2021 to 2022. As a result, going into the world championships, things still seemed very uncertain surrounding the present and future of the sport.

And so it was a welcome surprise that the rescheduled 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Ore., (July 15-24) felt like a return to normal for track and field. If things go according to plan, the worlds will return to a regular schedule with the 2023 meet being held in Budapest.

In the idyllic locale known as Track Town, USA, track was undeniably back. The sport still lacks an active, mainstream-famous celebrity athlete on the level of Bolt, who mesmerized casual sports fans and penetrated pop culture; and its star power was diminished even more as the world championships served as the farewell performance for the retiring Allyson Felix, arguably the biggest name in women’s track over the last two decades.

But things do appear to be in good hands. Younger stars like Sydney McLaughlin (23 years old, hurdles) and Fred Kerley (27, sprints) of the United States, Shericka Jackson of Jamaica (28, sprints), and Armand Duplantis of Sweden (22, pole vault) were among those who made strong bids in Eugene to become household names.

Also highlighting the field of medal winners at the 2022 world championships were some Muslim athletes who either maintained a longstanding dominance in their chosen event, or whom broke out onto the scene with eye-opening performances.

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Bashir Abdi, Belgium — marathon (bronze medal)

Originally from Somalia, Abdi lived in Djibouti and Ethiopia before settling in Belgium, where he became a standout distance runner as a teenager. The 33-year-old has medaled at track’s last two major championship meets, claiming bronze in the men’s marathon at the 2021 Olympics, and another bronze in the marathon at this year’s worlds. His time of 2 hours, 6 minutes and 48 seconds in Eugene wasn’t far off of the European record time of 2:03.36 that he ran in 2021.

Mutaz Essa Barshim, Qatar — high jump (gold)

There was a time when it seemed like only a matter of time before Barshim broke the men’s high jump world record. Cuban legend Javier Sotomayor has held the WR of 2.45 meters since 1993; Barshim reached as high as 2.43 meters in 2014. In the last eight years, Barshim (31 years old) hasn’t gotten as close to the record — but he has collected two Olympic medals (silver in 2016, gold in 2021), and in Eugene he added his third world championships gold medal. His meet-winning mark of 2.37 meters was the best on the planet this year and extended his major-meet win streak that dates back four years. His last high-profile loss came when he settled for silver at the 2018 World Indoor Championships.

Soufiane El Bakkali, Morocco — 3,000-meter steeplechase (gold)

The man who broke through Kenya’s international stranglehold on the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at last year’s Olympics kept the Kenyans at bay again at this year’s world championships. When the Moroccan native El Bakkali won gold in Tokyo, he became the first non-Kenyan male to win at an Olympics or world championships since 1987. In Eugene, he entered the steeplechase final as part of a 15-man field that included three Kenyans and three Ethiopians, but El Bakkali won again, coming across the line at 8 minutes and 25.13 seconds, ahead of Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma and Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto.

Mohamed Katir, Spain — 1,500 meters (bronze)

Another distance runner born in Morocco, Katir and his family moved to Spain when he was a child, so he now represents the European nation on the track. Katir had the second-fastest time in the men’s 1,500-meter semifinal round, but he finished third in the final behind Jake Wightman of Great Britain and Jakob Ingebrigsten of Norway. The bronze was Katir’s first medal at a major championship meet.

Dalilah Muhammad, United States — 400-meter hurdles (bronze)

The aforementioned Sydney McLaughlin had perhaps the most talked-about individual performance in Eugene, smashing the world record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles in 50.68 seconds. Coming in bronze-medal position in that same race was Muhammad, the 32-year-old who broke the world record herself back in 2019 but had since been topped by McLaughlin. Muhammad, a two-time Olympic gold medalist — 400 hurdles in 2016, and the 4×400 relay in 2021 — might be on the downside of her career as McLaughlin is just rising to superstardom, but she’s still going to go down in history as one of the best to ever compete in the event.

Djamel Sedjati, Algeria — 800 meters (silver)

It is tradition at international championship track meets for the medal-winning athletes to wave their country’s flag in celebration immediately after their triumph in a show of national pride. Sedjati decided to do things a bit differently. After finishing second in the men’s 800 meters, the newly crowned silver medalist from Algeria revealed a Palestinian flag and waved that for the crowd in Eugene, showing solidarity with the Muslim-majority nation in its never-ending fight against Israel.

Tamirat Tola, Ethiopia — marathon (gold)

Tola crossed the finish line in the men’s marathon 1 minute and 12 seconds ahead of aforementioned bronze medalist Bashir Abdi for a world championship record time of 2 hours, 5 minutes and 36 seconds. It was Tola’s first major championship gold medal, after taking bronze in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics and silver in the marathon at the 2017 world championships.

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