Distance-running great Haile Gebrselassie said it was a mistake to hold the track and field world championships in Qatar and that marathon runners could have died from the heat.
The women’s marathon Saturday started at midnight to dodge the worst of the heat in Qatar but was still held in humidity that made it feel like 105 °F (40 °C). Twenty-eight of the 68 women dropped out, 30 runners were given medical inspections and one was briefly hospitalized.
Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, one of the country’s leading athletes, collapsed at around 20 miles (32 kilometers) while she was in fifth place. Her failure to finish the race hurt her chances of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“It was a mistake to conduct the championship in such hot weather in Doha, especially the marathon race. As someone who has been in the sport for many years, I’ve found it unacceptable,” former marathon world-record holder Gebrselassie told The Associated Press in a telephone interview published Monday.
“God forbid, but people could have died running in such weather conditions,” Gebrselassie said.
The stadium events for the world championships are held in the air-conditioned Khalifa International Stadium, but there’s no such protection from the heat for the marathon and walks on the Doha seafront.
“The track races were OK, but I’ve found it difficult to accept the justification behind holding the marathon race,” Gebrselassie said. “They could have made it a half-marathon event, or even scrap it from this championship taking into consideration the weather conditions.”
Gebrselassie, a two-time Olympic champion in the 10,000 meters who was also president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, said athletes had trained hard but struggled with the conditions. That could hurt their morale for the future, he added.
All three of Ethiopia’s runners failed to finish the women’s marathon, which was won by Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya. Her finishing time of 2 hours, 32 minutes, 43 seconds was the slowest winning time in three-and-a-half decades’ worth of these events.
The top 10 finishers in the women’s marathon qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Those who failed to qualify in Doha will need to achieve the qualifying time of 2 hours, 29 minutes, 30 seconds in a later race.
Other distance events in Doha have seen athletes fail to finish. In the men’s 50-kilometer walk Sunday, 15 of 46 starters dropped out, and six out of 23 were non-finishers in the women’s 50k walk.
The IAAF has defended its staging of the events, saying that the women’s marathon completion rate was similar to those at world championships in Tokyo (1991) and Moscow (2013).
“Those who win, they are heroes,” Chemtai Salpeter said after the race. “Those who finish, I tell them they are strong. Even those who didn’t finish, they’re also strong. They tried their best.”
Chemtai Salpeter was pushing to close a gap with the leading pack around the halfway mark of the race when she collapsed, and had closed her time difference with the leading five runners from one minute to 11 seconds.
Last month, Chemtai Salpeter broke a European record for the women’s 10,000 meter race, finishing a race in the Netherlands in 30 minutes and 4 seconds.
Last year, she won the Florence Marathon, crossing the finishing line in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 17 seconds, setting an Israeli record. She already held the Israeli records for 1,500, 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and the half marathon.
Born in Kenya, Chemtai Salpeter moved to Israel in 2011 and fought for citizenship for years. She eventually received Israeli citizenship in March of 2016 after winning the Tel Aviv marathon, allowing her to compete for Israel in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Israel-based refugee participants
Separately, two asylum seekers from Israel finished near the bottom of the pack in the men’s 5,000 meter competition in Doha.
Out of a field of 39 runners, Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed from Darfur finished in 32nd place and Eritrean Teklewini Melake Gebreyesus finished 34th.
The two did not run in the same race but in two separate heats. Both finished around one minute behind event winner Paul Chelimo of the US.
Although their events were held indoors, four of their fellow competitors failed to complete the race.
Their performance does not win them a trip to the 2020 Olympics, but doesn’t disqualify them either. Both are aiming to join the Refugee Olympic Team in the Tokyo games, which will be selected by an Olympic committee in April.
They were the only refugees participating in 5,000 meter races, and two of three competing in Doha, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations website.
The race marked Gebreyesus’s first international event, while Mohammad has been competing and training abroad for several years.
The Refugee Olympic Team competed for the first time in the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, games in 2016. Ten athletes from South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria competed in three sports under the Olympic flag.
The two entered Israel separately as unaccompanied minors almost a decade ago, but are not considered citizens or granted passports, but temporary travel documents, which can make travel difficult. The two runners and a coach were stuck in the Istanbul airport for almost 24 hours due to visa problems on their way to Doha.
The United Nations confirmed their refugee status, giving them eligibility to compete as refugees abroad, but they have not been recognized as such in Israel.
Israel’s government rarely grants refugee status to asylum seekers, but authorities have generally been helpful to the Alley Runners club, where Mohammed trains, said Shirith Kasher, the club’s chairwoman. The club, which caters to disadvantaged youth in south Tel Aviv, has found support from the Foreign Ministry, immigration authorities, Israeli sports officials and the Tel Aviv municipality, including for its trip to Qatar.
They competed in Doha separately from the Israeli team, but know the Israeli athletes well, having met at competitions regularly in Israel.
There are about 35,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the vast majority from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered Israel from 2005. Many are fleeing persecution in their homelands and civil rights groups in Israel and abroad consider them refugees, but Israeli right-wing politicians say most are only in the country for economic opportunities.