StOn a tide of emotion, Kenenisa Bekele swept to the greatest victory of his sensational career when he collected a fourth consecutive IAAF World Cross Country Championships short race title on St-Galmier Hippodrome on Saturday (19 March) infront of over 18,500 spectators.
She is in my heart
At the very head of a catalogue of remarkable athletics achievements: World and Olympic golds at 10,000 metres, World records at 5000 and 10,000m, and a unique three successive IAAF World Cross Country Championship doubles, the Ethiopian can now inscribe this latest global victory.
He cast aside the burden of a broken heart, following the death of his teenage fiancee, World Youth 1500 metres champion Alem Techale, to win a breathtaking race in 26-degree heat.
"Joy comes frequently in life but grief on this level is something that you encounter very rarely," he said, "so to come here to this competition, where I first made my name, and to win after losing Alem is a very significant victory for me."
The vulnerability was their own
The odds against such an improbable success seemed overwhelming, as only the day before at the press conference to launch these championships Bekele seemed to prepare the ground for at least individual defeat - "I have to compete for my country, and my people, and I will do my best," he said. "I'll work to achieve a result for the team."
It was a confession which raised the hopes of rivals, betraying evidence of not just physical but also mental fragility. They were already licking their lips after two indoor defeats for the wounded Bekele, in Boston and Birmingham. His lack of focus then was self evident. On the first occasion he was so distracted that he lost count of the laps.
All this encouraged Qatar's Kenyan recruit, Saif Saaeed Shaheen, to nurture hopes of victory on a course where the obstacles suggested steeplechasers might be favoured. It encouraged Kenya to think they could overturn Ethiopian individual and team success.
In the end, the vulnerability was their own. Ethiopia's lion proved the strongest. His individual win led Ethiopia to a successful defence of their team title. Yet Bekele had seemed a broken man when Shaheen delivered a suicidal mid-race surge to take a lead of almost 50 metres. The race seemed over, but in what may prove the defining moment of his career, Bekele clawed back Shaheen and left him broken, and out of the medals, back in fourth.
"She's in my heart, she's in my heart," said Bekele, hand across his chest shortly after crossing the finish line. "It was very good, but it was difficult . . . I did think about Alem, of course, but I did not lose her. She is in my heart. Compared to last year it was harder, because the course was harder, and I have been in mourning. So my preparation was not the same as last year."
Qataris did what I needed
Yet Shaheen's colleagues, who set a furious pace, played into his hands. Bekele agreed. "The Qataris did exactly what I needed - they made the pace fast."
Later, in an an emotional interview once he had collected his medal, he said. "This is very very different from previous years for me. It is the first competition after my friend died, so I ran with two things in my heart: both grief and joy. This year I expected beforehand it would be very difficult for me for that reason, so it's a very special feeling to have completed this competition as a champion, for my friends and my family as well as for myself, because I have run with grief in my heart, grief that the whole world shared with me from the day that my fiancée died.
"I received condolences from abroad, from the IAAF President Lamine Diack, and everyone was encouraging me to return to the sport. So I expect that this will be joyful not just for me, but for everyone else as well, so I am very happy."
He paid tribute to his manager Jos Hermens and his staff for their moral support, and their evident concern for his welfare. "They have been worrying about my confidence, about my future, and my career."
Astonished and surprised
Hermens, no stranger to endurance prodigy after having nurtured Bekele's predecessor, Haile Gebrselassie, had already confided in awed tones that he believed this latest win was the finest of Bekele's career.
"It's better even than his Olympic win in Athens,” said Hermens. “He told me before this race that he felt hungry, that he was not feeling strong, and that he had not slept well. It was a good course, but he told me he would have preferred if it had been muddy. Psychologically he did not seem right.”
"Given all the circumstances I am surprised. We already started training later after the Olympics. Then there was Alem's death. Because mourning in his culture means not training for 40 days, he felt guilty starting back training before that. There was some criticism of him for running again, but for athletes, the best way to mourn is to run. He did not wait 40 days. If he had, he would not have been here.”
"I told him to forget the World Cross, but he trained very hard these last few weeks…, and he was hurting terribly. He was very down. All the athletes came to Alem's funeral. The came to the house and cried together. It was so touching and emotional. Kenenisa left his house, and moved into a hotel, just to get away from people.”
"Yet he took on his responsibilities to the team, though he was not 100%, and when Shaheen charged away, he did not panic. He did not go too fast.”
"Surprised? I was astonished. It was the most amazing race of his career."
Better than Olympic win
When I put this to Bekele, he agreed.
"Yes, it is correct, that it is better than when I won at the Olympics. This was very significant, because I had really suffered as a result of the tragedy . . . I was disturbed and anxious, but I feel this competition will improve things further, and the incredible support I have had will open further doors for me."
Whether it will open a door to another double remains to be seen, but he certainly plans to defend the other title. "It will be more difficult, because it's longer, and also competitors will come fresh, because they will not run have today and tomorrow."
But whatever rivals throw at him now, Bekele will be stronger. This was his toughest battle.
As Shaheen said, in an honest and earnest tribute: "I had the idea in my mind that he might be vulnerable. After defeats in Boston and Birmingham, maybe he was not strong. Mentally, he is stronger than ever."
Doug Gillon for the IAAF