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'This double means more than the others put together,' says Kenenisa Bekele

Kenenisa Bekele shows off his four gold medal haul (Getty Images)Kenenisa Bekele shows off his four gold medal haul (Getty Images) © Copyright

If Kenenisa Bekele's short course victory in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships on Saturday was a triumph of the human spirit, then his successful defence of the long course crown 24 hours later suspended belief even further.

With fresh men and fresh legs to challenge him, it was surely unreasonable to expect a double title for a fourth consecutive year?

But no.

Still unshaven as a badge of mourning for his 19-year-old fiancée who died on January 4, Bekele won both long and short race men's titles for the fourth successive year. Only a brave man with a very reliable crystal ball would bet against the Ethiopian doing the double again in Fukuoka next year, when the short race will be on the programme for the final time.

Bekele had 14 seconds to spare over Eritrean Zersenay Tadesse as he led Ethiopia to an 11-point victory over Kenya in the team race. Bekele is the only man to have done the double, and at 22 has already matched the record 13 world individual and team golds by Kenyan legend Paul Tergat.

The only time he put a foot wrong was on the way back from the podium, after having collected the second team gold. Someone stood on his heel, ripping off his shoe as Bekele walked from the medal rostrum. It was the only time he put a foot wrong.

"The race was harder and muddier than yesterday," he said, "and the other competitors were fresher than me, because they hadn't run yesterday. I expected my strongest rivals to be Kipchoge and Tadesse. Running neck and neck with Kipchoge was a very difficult part of the race, but I believed my finish would be strong enough to win today. These victories are more significant in my eyes than the previous ones, because in the past I had my fiancée with me, encouraging me."

Bekele himself credits God with having had a hand in his success. "I praise God for what he gives, the good and the bad."

He declined to name himself the greatest cross country runner ever: "That's not for me. That's something only other people can determine. If they say so that is up to them, but this is certainly the best result I have achieved."

He said he had run by instinct, rather than to a pre-set plan: "It's a competition and I monitor the race as it goes along. It's not something I plan in advance. It depends on how the race develops."

When he had time to reflect, he displayed a rare eloquence, forged, it seems, in the dark silent place he has visited since the death of fiancée Alem Techale as she trained with him in early January.

"This double means more than the others put together," he said. "For me this is the greatest, because this year I was in mourning. I spent the other years happy with my friend and lover by my side. I did this with grief and joy trading places in my heart, so this is much more significant.

"In the past I faced my competitions as two people, with Alem, my friend, by my side, encouraging and supporting me. I feel now, after losing her, as if I am naked and facing these competitions alone. So to have achieved this after such a short time, I truly thank God."

He was gracious with sympathy for Kenyan rival Eliud Kipchoge, who tried so hard to win, though he said the outcome must have been what God had planned for him. "But I would like him to have medalled, because he led for most of the race."

Bekele's 18-year-old younger brother, Tariku, is in awe of what Kenenisa achieved on the testing turf of St Galmier Hippodrome. Parts of the course had been heavily watered overnight, and were quite muddy. Others were firmly baked in the sun as temperatures reached 28 degrees on race day.

"At one time, I doubted if Kenenisa would ever have the heart to run as well again," said Tariku. Yet now, his rivals believe he is even stronger.

"Rivals will be in even more awe of him," said Dave Collins, a professor of sports psychology with a string of successes in a range of sports who has recently taken over as head of elite performance at UK Athletics. "It's not so much what this success does for him, but what it will do to his opponents."

Many of them believed he was at his most vulnerable, after track defeats in Boston and Birmingham offered a glimmer of hope.

Added pressure for younger brother Tariku

Tariku acknowledged that the markers his brother is laying down are putting him under pressure as he tries to make his own way in the sport. His best 5000 metres time (13:11.97) is quicker than Kenenisa at the same age. Despite this, he says: "It will be very difficult for me to follow in my brother's footsteps, but I will try."

He started training with the national squad only on leaving high school last year, but for much of Sunday's junior race, he was right in the vanguard, and yet another magical family chapter seemed about to be written.

But Tariku had been troubled by a tendon injury in his left leg. "I felt it in the training camp, and in the race," he said. Pressed, he added: "I believe if I had not had this problem, I might have been able to win."

He finished sixth, just 17 seconds down, and by the time he had a tracksuit on, he could not walk without a limp. Afterwards, he said: "I think what Kenenisa has done here was very difficult for him, because he missed several weeks' training. He was training for only about three weeks before these races. It has given me great motivation to see how he overcame his friend's death. My brother is a strong man, so it teaches me that I should be equally strong mentally."

Where does the Olympic champion go from here? "I have been asked to run in Hengelo on 29 May but no one has approached me about attempting the World record," said Kenenisa. "As time approaches, I will think about it."

He says if recent experiences have taught him anything, it is not to make too many plans for the future. That was his response to suggestions that he might take the marathon World record apart.

One more reason for not planning is a further day he must endure. 8 May is the day he and Alem had planned to marry.

Doug Gillon for the IAAF