The men’s 5,000-meter race was expected as undercard for Saturday night’s Olympic track and field program, taking a backseat to the 4×400 relays and the controversial dominance of South Africa’s Caster Semenya. Instead, the saga of Chelimo, a U.S. Army water treatment specialist and member of the army’s World Class Athlete Program, became perhaps the most memorable story of the night, with NBC playing a starring — and unbecoming — role.
After the race, Chelimo said, he waited next to an NBC cameraman and reporter for a couple minutes for a live interview. He had not learned that the IAAF had disqualified him and his time of 13:03.90 — about 15 seconds better than his previous best — for infringement. When the interview began, Chelimo learned he had lost it.
“I don’t know why they did that,” Chelimo said. “I had to wait two or three minutes before they had me live on the TV. I thought they were trying to interview me because I’m a silver medalist. They should have told me what was happening. I can’t say for them. I don’t know what happened. I was just disappointed. It’s really sad for me, because I heard it from a TV guy. The whole time, I didn’t know.
“That was the first time I realized I was disqualified. I didn’t know. Just getting the news from the television that I was disqualified, that was the most heartbreaking thing in my life. It’s really something. I couldn’t even wrap it up in my mind.”
Immediately, USA Track and Field appealed for reinstatement. It would mean 41-year-old Bernard Lagat, who had jumped to third from fifth after two medalists were disqualified, would lose the bronze he had suddenly won. Chelimo waited for 20 minutes until finally the IAAF reinstated him.
“That was the longest wait of my life,” Chelimo said. “I’ve been working out for this. It’s been sweat, blood and tears. What went down behind the scenes in practice, this was just icing on the cake. … I just can’t express myself right now. I’m happy. It’s all about hard work. They didn’t take my 13:03 personal best. I really wanted that 13:03. It shows I’m in the top level right now.”
Chelimo grew up in Iten, Kenya, and moved to the United States in 2010 to run track in college. He joined the World Class Athlete Program, in which he serves in the army but has flexibility to train for the Olympics.
The training, he said, helped him during a rough-and-tumble race. Determined to compete, Chelimo grabbed an inside position. Just ahead of him, Chelimo said gold medalist Mo Farrah of Great Britain and Ethiopian Hagos Gebrhiwet aligned against him.
“They kept blocking me,” Chelimo said. “They were working as a team. They kept blocking me, because I think he knew I was a factor. That was his game. He was trying to make sure I don’t get a chance. He was trying to destroy me mentally. But the army has taught me to be physically and mentally tough.”
Chelimo openly admitted it was a physical race, but he was still stunned at the initial ruling. He said he could not remember a 5,000 finishing with disqualification. Bumping and defending positions is part of the event.
“There was a lot of pushing back and forth, people coming from behind and pushing and shoving, passing on the outside,” Chelimo said. “So it wasn’t like an easy race, you could just sit there and expect to medal without fighting.”
Chelimo had to keep fighting until long after the race ended. In the end, his heartbreak turned back to joy.
“I thank all the people who fought for me to try to get me back,” Chelimo said. “I’m really happy because right now, this is for my soldiers, for my soldiers out there who work really hard. Thank God they didn’t take my silver medal, because I worked out for all my soldiers. We work out together every day. I represent them, and they represent me.”