Barega moved to the front of the lead pack with 400 meters to go and kicked clear in the closing stages, finishing in a time of 27:43.22 ahead of Ugandan duo Joshua Cheptegei and Jacob Kiplimo.
Held in the virtually empty surroundings of Tokyo’s 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium, most of the noise in the arena came from the announcers and the music that blared from the speakers, providing a somewhat surreal soundtrack to proceedings.
The race, too, was a strange affair, with Uganda’s Stephen Kissa storming into a huge early lead before dropping out with nine laps to go.
“It was a sacrifice for the team. We had a plan for me to go ahead to make it a fast race,” Kissa later explained to reporters.
“I thought they (Cheptegei and Kiplimo) were going to follow me but when I looked round they were not there … We were planning for the gold but unfortunately we have a silver and bronze. But I’m happy. We have two medals. Maybe next time someone else will sacrifice themselves for me.”
With temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius and the humidity levels high in the stadium, any chances of a fast time evaporated throughout the race, despite Kissa’s best efforts.
The 21-year-old Barega, whose winning time was over a minute and a half slower than Cheptegei’s world record, now joins a prestigious list of Ethiopian runners to win Olympic gold in the 10,000m, notably Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie.
Between those three, Ethiopia has won six of the last eight 10,000m titles at the Olympics, with the other two going to Great Britain’s Mo Farah.
“It’s very well known that we have been winners for the 10,000m competition,” Barega told reporters.
“Since Kenenisa won last time (at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), we have been unable to achieve a gold medal. I feel really proud to be part of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”
Barega’s previous best result of his career was a silver medal in the 5,000m at the 2019 World Athletics Championships.
The race settled down after Kissa’s withdrawal, and with four laps to go there was a closely-bunched group of 15 runners still in contention.
That thinned to about eight at the bell, at which point Barega surged to the front and saw off challenges from Cheptegei and Kiplimo.
Further back in the field, there were dramatic scenes as Australia’s Patrick Tiernan, who had kept pace with the race leaders until the final lap, swerved and collapsed out of exhaustion on the home straight.
Amazingly, he managed to pick himself up and crossed the line in a time of 28:35.06.