13 OCT 1999 General News

Fita Bayssa : Ethiopian Jewel of Distance Running


By Pat Butcher

Fita Bayissa is one of the forgotten men of long distance running. But his victory in the Belgrade Race Through History yesterday (Wednesday), beating World Cross Country champion, Paul Tergat will serve to jog the memory.

World Junior 5000m champion in 1990, Bayissa was one of the favourites for the Olympic 10,000m title in Barcelona 1992. Two months beforehand, he had a mightily impressive debut at the distance, winning in Oslo in 27:14.26. But then he succumbed to what he describes with gesture and grimace and a little English as "pressure of expectation," and he had to settle for Olympic bronze.

Even that got overlooked in the wake of the battle for gold between Richard Chelimo and Khalid Skah, and the furore over whether eventual winner Skah was paced unfairly by colleague, Hammou Boutayeb.

But Bayissa's victory in Oslo remained the fastest time of 1992, and his last lap of 54.8 that evening is one of the best of all time.

His sprint to beat Tergat in Belgrade is proof that he has lost little of that speed, and he is hoping to put it to even better use in the Olympic 5000m next summer.

Another reason for his comparative eclipse has been the rise of his training partner, one Haile Gebrselassie. They live close to each another on the edge of Addis Ababa, and have trained regularly together since the early nineties. Indeed, Haile followed Fita as World Junior 5000m champion in 1992 (he also won the 10,000m).

But while Gebrselassie has bucked the rigid national federation by living in Europe part of the year, and securing a succession of titles and records, Bayissa's family - he has four young children - means he has stayed at home, out of the limelight, and out of the medals.

Suggest that maybe he should split from Gebrselassie - they also share a manager - in order to better compete against his more famous compatriot, he says that's why he is taking on the 5000m in Sydney, while Haile goes for 10,000m. But, he says, "With a 54 second last lap, maybe I could beat him".