Ethiopian runner Etenesh Diro - one of the favourites in the women's 3000m steeplechase - was sitting comfortably in first place about two-thirds into her heat at the Olympics when disaster struck.

Her heel was clipped by a falling opponent, sending her tumbling to the ground and removing her right shoe.

The 25-year-old stood and quickly tried to put it back on her foot, but the laces were tied tight and with no time to spare she cast it aside.

Realising she'd have a better chance of running barefoot, her sock went too - and the African set about attempting to fight her way back into a race where only the first three placegetters were guaranteed of progressing to the final.

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To say the crowd at Rio's Maracana Stadium got behind her was an understatement.

With every step of Diro's barren hoof the energy went up a notch - and she responded by passing several runners in the final few laps to claim seventh.

After the race Diro dropped to the ground in disappointment as competitors offered their support.

She'd failed to qualify and lost the opportunity to improve on a sixth-placed finish in London. But then something heartwarming happened.

Three teams involved in the race protested.

Diro had been unfairly brought down and along with Jamaica's Aisha Praught and Ireland's Sara Treacy - who also fell after being impeded - would be given a place in the final, which expanded to 18 runners.

She will now be the fan favourite in the final, which also features Australian Genevieve LaCaze and starts at 2.15am Tuesday NZT.