Five years after his older brother won the men's World Cross Country junior race in Ostend, Tariku Bekele arrived in Fukuoka looking for a championship of his own. Where Kenenisa had been a family trailblazer, with only his own results to speak for him (including a silver in the 2001 short race before winning the junior race,) Tariku bore the expectations that come with a heavy name.
Only one mistake
For seven kilometres he ran like his brother, well-positioned among the leaders, and like his brother on Saturday he attacked as the field entered the small hills leading to the finishing straight. It would have been easy to predict yet another Bekele victory as Tariku reached the finishing straight with several meters lead and the distinctive Bekele stride. However, he had not yet defeated the day's invisible obstacle, a strong wind sweeping down the course which caused sprinting finishers to appear as though climbing a steep hill.
While Tariku struggled, two Kenyans swept by to victory.
"It was tough because of the wind--not like yesterday," said victor Mangata Ndiwa. "As we know, in cross country you must cross a lot of obstacles. You must be ready to face it. We knew that you could not kick, because of the strong wind, for 200 meters. We were relaxing, waiting to kick, until maybe 100 metres."
"Yes, I think I did make a mistake," Tariku acknowledged. "If I had [waited and] moved out with about 100 meters to go, I would have had a better chance to challenge. Moving so early was not good for me."
It is perhaps unfair to compare Tariku with the most decorated athlete in World Cross Country history. If Tariku was the younger brother of Gebre-Gebremariam or Hailu Mekkonen, just to name two of Ethiopia's past junior race champions, such comparisons would be a footnote, at best, to a single-sentence biography. But with Kenenisa suggesting that he would leave the World Cross to his younger teammates after his fifth double victory, it's worthwhile to consider Tariku's difficulties today as reflecting as much of the sheer talent of the older Bekele as any deficiency on the part of the younger.
Tariku's season to date, after all, has been stellar. His sixth-place finish in the Moscow 3000m final (7:47.11) placed him ahead of this weekend's short race bronze medalist Adil Kaouch. Tariku's conditioning, therefore, was comparable to his older brother's form in Ostend--perhaps better, in fact, since Kenenisa admitted that this year's short race field was tougher than any other he had raced. Tariku had every reason to consider himself capable of winning the junior race.
Even with the training and racing advantages which come from being the brother of the great Kenenisa, Tariku's disadvantage is that he has so often had to follow his brother to the line that he is not accustomed to not following. The tactical error which was his downfall today was not the first sign of this; after placing fourth (behind Craig Mottram, Sileshi Sihine and Alistair Cragg) over two miles at the Boston Indoor Games in January, Tariku admitted, "I could've done better, but I figured there are better runners than me."
While it may be shocking to consider an athlete as talented as Kenenisa Bekele forsaking an event he has dominated at such a young age, it may be to the benefit of the younger Ethiopian runners--not least Kenenisa's own brother--to remove the giant who has shaded them all for so long, and let them stand in the sun on their own.
Parker Morse for the IAAF