How Gidamis Shahanga was robbed of a gold medal

Gidamis Shahanga, the legendary Tanzanian runner was robbed of a gold medal at the 1983 world athletics championships.

Tanzania’s golden era

Today in 2015, the world of distance running is thoroughly dominated by two East African Nations, Kenya and Ethiopia. Virtually every Marathon and Half Marathon in the world today is won by an athlete from one of these two countries.

This was not the case in the early 1980s. During this period, Tanzanian runners outshone their Kenyan and Ethiopian counterparts in the marathon as well as the 10,000m. Most notable among these were Juma Ikangaa, Juma Mnyampanda, and Gidamis Shahanga. The latter is the subject of this blog post.

During this period, Shahanga was a standout performer. He won the gold medals in the 1978 Commonwealth games marathon and went on to win the 10,000m at the 1982 Commonwealth games. Tanzania actually finished above Kenya in the medal standings during the club games of 1982.

Thus going into the world athletics championships of 1983, Shahanga was considered one of the favourites.

The Race

The runners were bunched together for the first 20 laps with the two Ethiopians Bekele and Kedir leading the pack. With 5 laps to go, Martin Vainio took over the lead and started to press the pace as his home crowd cheered wildly. With Vainio pressing the pace, the field was split but Shahanga stayed with the leading pack of 14 runners.

From Left: Bekele Debele (Eth), Gidamis Shahanga (Tan), Christop Herle (WG), Hansjorg Kunze (EG), Nick Rose (GB), Alberto Cova (Ita), Carlos Lopes (Por), Werner Schildhauer (EG), Martti Vainnio (Fin), Mohamed Kedir (Eth), Steve Jones (GB). Images courtesy of


With 440m to go, the two East Germans Schildhauer and Kunze burst ahead and started to stretch the field further. Shahanga stayed with the leading pack which by now had reduced to only 5 runners: Cova, Vainio, Shahanga and the two East Germans .

Schildhauer led and continued to push the pace as Shahanga who was only a few paces behind struggled mightily to catch up with Vainio, Schildhauer and Kunze. With 50 metres left, Shahanga was still in striking distance. That was when the Italian Cova made his move. He effortlessly strode past the leading group and nipped Schildhauer at the finish line for a memorable finish.

Shahanga (far left) was left biting dust

The final positions (top 8) were as follows:

1. Alberto Cova (28’01.04)
2. Schildhauer (28’01.18)
3. Kunze (28’01.26)
4. Vainio (28’01.37)
5. Shahanga (28’01.93)
6. Lopes (28’06.78)
7. Rose (28’07.53)
8. Herle (28’09.05)

Doping by the Europeans doomed Shahanga

All the runners who finished ahead of Shahanga were proven to be dopers:

Alberto Cova later admitted to blood doping. Blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance athletic performance. It was not illegal at the time.

The two East Germans Schildhauer  and Kunze were part of the Government sponsored East German doping program.

Vainio came from Finland, a country that is well known to have invented and perfected the art of blood doping. In addition, Vainio failed adrug test at the 1984 Olympics when he tested positive for a banned substance known as metonolone.

In essence, all the runners who beat Shahanga into 5th place were doping. Shahanga was likely the only clean runner among the top 5.

Doping was rampant among European athletes during this era due to lax testing. Which is why Europeans for the most part dominated distance running during that era. Finland in particular had numerous Olympic gold medalists like Pekka Vassala and Lasse Viren. It was Viren who became well known as the first athlete to use blood doping to ultimate success when he won the 5000m and the 10,000m at both the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

But it was the East German state sponsored doping regime that pushed doping to extreme levels. The East Germans were intent on proving that communism was superior to capitalism and they wanted to use sports as their avenue to make their point. It worked to a large extent because East Germany was often at the top of the Athletics medal standings leaving the Americans in their wake.

With today’s dope testing standards, it is likely that some of these athletes would have been exposed for doping, granting Shahanga a medal, possibly gold.

As a side note, it is worth noting that no Kenyan qualified for the 10,000m at the 1983 world athletics championships. kenyan athletics was undergoing a depression after having boycotted both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics which left Kenyan runners demotivated and demoralized.

The video of the race

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