Updated 21 August 2008
KENENISA Bekele, Ethiopia (5000m/10,000m/cross country)
Born 13 June 1982, near Bekoji, Arsi Province, Ethiopia.
Lives in Addis Ababa. Stays in Nijmegen, Netherlands, during short gaps between European competitions.
Manager: Jos Hermens. Coach: Tolosa Kotu. Club: Mugher Cement.
Second of six children. Brother Tariku (b. 1987) took World Youth Ch. 3000m silver in 2003; World Juniors 5000m bronze in 2004 and gold in 2006; and World Indoors 3000m gold.
Father retired from farming and raising grain, cattle and sheep.
Finished eight years of school. Has taken courses aiming to complete secondary school.
Married Ethiopian film actress Danawit Gebregziabher November 18, 2007. (Was previously engaged, to 2001 1500m World Youth champion Alem Techale, who died suddenly 4 January 2005.)
Kenenisa began running in primary school, inspired by the success of DerartuTulu, Fatuma Roba and Haile Gebrselassie. His first competitive success came in 1997, his seventh year of school, when he won a local schools cross country. In 1999 he won the provincial championship and represented the province in the national junior championship, finishing 6th and qualifying for Ethiopia's junior World Cross team for Belfast (he finished 9th). He was then offered a place in a team sponsored by Mugher Cement factory, whose members include Tesfaye Jifar, Tesfaye Tola and Gezahagne Abera, and whose coach is Tolosa Kotu, now also a lead national coach.
On the track in 1999 he won silver in the 5000m behind Kenyan Pius Muli at the World Youth Championships. The next year he fell ill before the World Cross trials and failed to qualify but later came 2nd to another Kenyan, Gordon Mugi, in the 5000m at the 2000 World Juniors in Chile.
In his final year as junior, he completed an astonishing double at 2001 World Cross, finishing 2nd in the men's short-course race on day 1 and returning the next day to add an overwhelming 33 second victory in the junior race. Stricken with abdominal pains during the 5000 at the Rome Golden League meet, which effectively served as Ethiopia's World Championships selection event, he finished 4th among Ethiopians (16th overall in 13:15.39) and failed to make the team.
In 2002, a similar pattern: he scored an even more extraordinary double at the World Cross, winning both long and short races (first man in the history of World Cross to do so), again by overwhelming margins. But his track season was curtailed by an achilles injury that precluded competition until November, when he ran to a modest 3rd in the Great Ethiopian Run.
Early in 2003, he won a series of five straight European cross races with an average victory margin of 27 seconds, and then completed a third supremely dominant double at the Lausanne World Cross. Two months later came what amounted to Kenenisa's senior international track debut in the Hengelo 10,000m, racing against Haile himself. When the "Emperor" launched his celebrated kick, his heir apparent responded with an even faster one, winning by almost a full second (26:53.70 to 26:54.58) and leaving observers in no doubt as to who now rules Ethiopian distance running. Kenenisa next outkicked most of the top Kenyans over 5000 in the Oslo GL, recording a PB 12:52.26; he beat many of them again in Lausanne (13:06.05 with a 52.6 last lap), and beat Haile a second time in the Rome GL (12:57.34 to 13:00.32), but both were edged by the astonishing finish of Kenyan Abraham Chebii (12:57.14), who handed Kenenisa his first loss in an international competition in more than two years.
Kenenisa's first global track gold came at the front of an intimidating Ethiopian sweep in the Paris World Championships 10,000. Kenenisa, Haile and Sileshi Sihine broke the field with a 12:57.24 final 5000, Sileshi dropping back with 600 to go and Kenenisa kicking past Haile over the last 200 for a championship record 26:49.57. The Paris 5000 also went in record time, but this one was not Kenenisa's. He and Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya followed the finishing drive of Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj over the last 800 meters, and both were gaining on the Moroccan down the final straight, but only Kipchoge (12:52.79) got past him. Kenenisa settled for an unaccustomed bronze (12:53.12) as his second World Championships medal and then capped his season with a solid win over half a dozen top Kenyans in the 3000m (7:36.98) at the World Athletics Final.
In 2004 Kenenisa extended to three years his cross country unbeaten streak (last loss: 2nd in the 2001 World Championships 4 km behind Kenyan Enock Koech) with his third crushing double at the World Cross, his sixth individual senior gold surpassing the record tallies of Kenyans John Ngugi and Paul Tergat. He also made a stunning debut on the indoor circuit with a 7:30.77 win at 3000 in Stuttgart and a 12:49.60 World record 5000 in Birmingham, his first senior global mark, taken, fittingly, from Haile. His pre-Olympic outdoor season, consisting of just four races, included the removal of two more of Haile’s World records—the big ones: 5000 (12:37.35 at Hengelo) and 10,000 (26:20.31 at Ostrava), both captured in a span of nine days.
Kenenisa doubled in the 5000 and 10,000 in Athens, where the 10,000 went much as expected, although the Ethiopians were unable to repeat their Paris medal sweep because the off-form Haile couldn’t hold his teammates’ pace (in spite of their praisewothy effort to pull him along by temporarily slowing down late in the race). Kenenisa finally blasted away from Sileshi with 500m to go for one of the most predictable golds of the Games (27:05.10).
The 5000, however, was up for grabs. The expected three-way battle between the Paris medalists developed more or less on schedule after about 4000m, but by then, after dawdling through ten laps, El Guerrouj correctly judged that he didn’t need his usual sustained drive for home and he allowed Kipchoge and Kenenisa to lead through the bell. When El Guerrouj did go, it was decisive, and even Kenenisa’s acceleration couldn’t hold off the miler’s speed. Kenenisa nevertheless came away from Athens with a gold and a silver, and that, together with his Cross Country double and his three World records made him an easy choice for IAAF World Athlete of the Year.
He was also the subject of a hit pop song celebrating his Athens gold and his generosity there towards Haile, and he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, an honor similar to posts held by Haile and Paul Tergat, indicating his stature in the sport.
Kenenisa began the 2004-2005 cross country season with a comfortable win in Spain, but his plans were suddenly suspended January 4, when his fiancée, World Youth 1500m champion Alem Techale, collapsed and died while on a training run on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Grieving Kenenisa withdrew from the big Edinburgh cross country but raced January 29 over 3000m at the Boston Indoor Games, where, still distracted, he lost count of the laps and lost to rising Irishman Alistair Cragg. Three weeks later in the Birmingham Indoor GP, his invincibility breached by his bereavement, Kenenisa lost again off a slow pace over 2 miles to the fast finish of countryman Markos Geneti. He was permitted to skip the Ethiopian cross country trials and entered in both races at the World Cross Country Championships in St. Etienne/St. Galmier, France.
In the short race, perhaps attempting to test Kenenisa’s unaccustomed vulnerability, Qatar’s Saif Saeed Shaheen (née Stephen Cherono of Kenya) attacked aggressively and held a substantial lead at halfway, but Kenenisa calmly reeled him in and strode to victory, gratefully acknowledging a supportive crowd. The next day, Kipchoge controlled the pace for much of the long race until a duel between the two rivals was decisively settled by a kick from Kenenisa in the last of six laps. His easy victory brought Kenenisa’s remarkable streak of double golds to four. Given the circumstances he’d had to overcome, it was acclaimed his greatest victory ever, and Kenenisa agreed, noting, “I ran with grief and joy alternating in my heart.”
Kenenisa escaped unhappy memories by training in Flagstaff, Arizona and wins over 10,000m (Hengelo, 26:28.72), 5000m (Paris, 12:40.18; London, 12:55.55) and 3000m (Lausanne, 7:34.57) followed, and by the Helsinki Worlds, there was no more talk of his vulnerability. The 10,000m gold was a foregone conclusion, and on a rainy night, he won easily in 27:08.33 with a 54.25 last lap, leading Sileshi to silver. Kenenisa chose not to run the 5000, and the first World Championships distance doubler turned out to be his countrywoman Tirunesh Dibaba.
Kenenisa then used a 7:32.59 3000m win in Zurich, ahead of new World 5000m champion Benjaimin Limo and bronze medallist Craig Mottram, to warm up for an assault on his own World 10,000m record, which he demolished with a 26:17.53 run in the Brussels GL, paced by his brother Tariku through the halfway mark (in 13:09.19), and putting in a smoldering last kilometre and 57-second last lap. For the second straight year Kenenisa led the IAAF World Rankings, and his Cross Country double, track World title and record made him the Athlete of the Year.
In January, 2006, Kenenisa overcame a challenge by Shaheen at the Edinburgh cross country meet to win by 4 seconds. He pulled out of an intended 1500m debut in Karlsruhe due to a minor training injury, but tackled his first mile race indoors at New York’s Millrose Games, where he faced Olympic 1500m silver medallist and the course record-holder Bernard Lagat of the US on the 160 yard (146.3m) steeply banked track. A fast first half dropped Kenenisa, but he held off world 1500m bronze medallist Rui Silva of Portugal for second.
Kenenisa attacked Haile’s 8:04.69 two mile World record in Birmingham, and came up short (8:05.12, then the second-fastest ever), but confirmed his form and headed to the Moscow World Indoors. He won the 3000 decisively (7:39.32) over Shaheen and Kipchoge, becoming the first ever to simultaneously hold indoor and outdoor track and cross country World titles.
He chased history again in Fukuoka, going after his fifth straight double gold in the last World Championships to feature both the short and long race. In a fast and competitive short race he clinched the title (in 10:54) ahead of Kenya’s Isaac Songok (10:55) and Morocco’s Adil Kaouch (10:57). Running against strong winds in the long race the next day, Kenenisa sealed his fifth double and his tenth World Cross gold, but then stated he had nothing new to accomplish in the event and was leaning towards not competing at the World Cross Country Championships any more, a shocking pronouncement on which the final decision was not to come for another 11 months.
Outdoors, Kenenisa proved vulnerable, losing three races over the summer, beginning with his first GL outing over 5000m in Oslo on 2 June, where Songok unleashed a powerful kick on the final turn to win in 12:55.79 to Kenenisa’s 12:58.22. Kenenisa was back in the running for a GL prize with wins in Paris and Rome, and slipped in a successful 1500m debut (3:33.08) in Stockholm, but then lost (in 13:00.04) to Bernard Lagat (12:59.22) in London, again kicking with 400m to go in a 5000m but being overtaken before the finish. He registered wins over the rest of the Golden League for a share of $500,000 of the jackpot, and took the African Championships 5000m title and thus the right to represent the continent in the event at the World Cup. But at the end of a long season, he chose instead to run the 3000m, to his detriment; Australia’s Mottram (7:32.19) inserted repeated surges over the last kilometer and shook Kenenisa (7:36.25) off in the last lap to win.
Kenenisa took dominant wins in Edinburgh and Seville in the 2006-2007 cross country season, before clocking personal bests indoors, in 7:30.51 over 3000m in Stockholm and in a World best 4:49.99 for 2000m in Birmingham that replaced another Haile Gebrselassie mark. Then he announced he had been persuaded by his recent form, his fans, federation and government, and the lure of the challenge, to go for an unprecedented sixth consecutive long race title at the World Cross, on African soil in Mombasa. Only two other athletes, both Kenyan veterans, have ever won five titles each -- Paul Tergat consecutively and John Ngugi with a gap in between -- and based on his last two victories and his historical record, Kenenisa looked set to make history yet again at the World Cross Country Championships, when he was felled by the searing heat and oppressive humidity of the coastal African city, along with several of his teammates. While well in the lead in the final lap of the course, Kenenisa, somewhat dehydrated and disoriented, lost momentum and was overtaken by Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadesse before stopping and wobbling off the course shortly thereafter, his sixth straight title bid aborted.
Kenenisa took a few months to recover both his form and his confidence following the experience, but returned to victory in Hengelo over two miles (8:13.51) on the track. In a chilly downpour in Sheffield, England on 15 July, he took a decisive 3000m victory in 7:26.69 over Mottram, who had beaten him over the distance at the 2006 World Cup. Kenenisa won again in Monaco in 7:29.32 and topped the world lists with largely solo runs in Zaragoza, Spain, over 5000m (in 12:49.53), and Stockholm over 3000m in a personal best 7:25.79, the eighth-fastest time ever.
He then defended his 10,000m World title against a fierce challenge from his compatriot and the defending silver-medallist Sileshi. In hot and humid Osaka, Zersenay pushed the pace until overtaken by Kenya’s Martin Irungu Mathati with 3 laps left. Sileshi responded to the surge but Kenenisa did not. When Kenenisa began to chase Sileshi, it seemed the latter was about to pull off an upset until Kenenisa kicked ferociously with 200 to go and won in 27:05.90 to Sileshi’s 27:09.03.
Kenenisa attacked his World 10,000m mark in Brussels but ran 26:46.19, but he ended the season with a 3:32.35 1500m personal best in Shanghai on 28 September. In his personal life, he kicked off the new Ethiopian millennium (the year 2000 on the Ethiopian calendar began 12 September 2007) with a momentous occasion on November 18. He married Ethiopian film actress Danawit Gebregziabher (who was in the recent Ethiopian feature film “The 11th Hour”) in a church ceremony followed by a lavish evening reception at Addis Ababa’s luxury Sheraton Addis hotel.
On 12 January 2008, at the site of the 2008 Edinburgh World Cross Championships, Kenenisa faced reigning World champion Zersenay Tadese over 9.3km, where he let Kipchoge lead and Zersenay make a move before kicking towards the end to win, 27:42 to the Eritrean’s 27:43. Kenenisa prevailed at the site of the 2008 World Indoors as well, winning the 3000m (7:36.08) in Valencia on 9 February, but he chose not to defend his World Indoor title and to focus instead on the World Cross. (His brother Tariku managed to keep the indoor track title in the family.)
Kenenisa attacked Haile’s 8:04.69 World two-mile best set in Birmingham at the same venue on 16 February. Paced through 8 laps (2:29.56 for 1000m, 4:00.58 for 1600m), he was ahead of pace at 2000 (5:00.61) before slowing down, and then kicking in the bell lap to succeed in 8:04.35.
The clear favorite in Edinburgh, Kenenisa's biggest hindrance was his shoe being kicked partially off early in the race, resulting in his falling back until he removed and replaced it and began to catch up. Catch up and then take off he did, despite the efforts of defending champion Zersenay Tadesse, who put up a strong fight, but was no match for Kenenisa. The Ethiopian romped home to the historic sixth long course title that had eluded him in Mombasa, bringing his previous total of 11 golds at the championships, already a record, to 12.
Kenenisa said in Edinburgh that he believed it was his national duty to run at the Addis Ababa African Athletics Championships and though he skipped the 10,000 contested exactly a month after his 12K at the World Cross, he ran in the shorter 5000 four days later, alongside his brother Tariku. The outcome appeared to be a foregone conclusion: Kenenisa retained his 2006 title leading teammate Ali Abdosh to bronze, but was chased hard by Kenya’s Songok.
Kenenisa also ran a U.S. all-comer’s record 26:25.97 with ease in Eugene, Oregon and 12:58.94 for 5000m in Hengelo, a wWorld-leading time in May, but since bettered by five other athletes this season, including Tariku and Sileshi.
Kenenisa has followed Haile’s footsteps off the track by engaging in the construction of commercial buildings in Addis Ababa and the Arsi region, and he is continuing to do so on the track by taking his second straight Olympic 10,000m crown in Beijing, in a Games record 27:01.17. Having chosen the track over the marathon, Haile was himself in the field, as was Sileshi who once again chased Kenenisa as he did a year ago at the Osaka Worlds, but this time the gold and silver were decided much earlier, and Kenenisa proved peerless. Accompanied by Tariku and new World junior champion Abraham Cherkos, he will run the Beijing 5000m final Saturday, once again hoping to emulate Ethiopian Miruts Yifter’s 1980 Olympic double gold.
2000m: 4:49.99 (2007) (WB)
3000m: 7:30:51 (2007)
Two mile: 8:04.35 (2008) (WB)
5000m: 12:49.60 (2004) (WR)
3000m: 7:25.79 (2006)
5000m: 12:37.35 (2004) (WR)
10,000m: 26:17.53 (2005) (WR)
Yearly progression 3000/5000/10,000: 1999 - 8:09.89/-/-; 2000 - 7:46.95/13:20.57; 2001 - 7:30.67/13:13.33; 2002 - -/13:26.58/-; 2003 – 7:36.98/12:52.26/26:49.57; 2004 - 7:30.77i/12:49.60i (IWR)/12:37.35 (WR)/26:20.31; 2005 – 7:32.59/12:40.18/26:17.53 (WR); 2006 – 7:36.25/12:48.09/-; 2007 – (2000m 4:49.99i WB)/(7:30.51i), 7:25.79/12:49.53/26:46.19; 2008 – 7:36.08i/(2mi. 8:04.35i WB)/12:58.94/26:25.97.
Olympic Games 1st 10,000m 2004, 2008; 2nd 5000m 2004
World Championships 1st 10,000m 2003, 2005, 2007; 3rd 5000m 2003
World Cross Country Championships 9th junior 1999; 1st junior 2001; 2nd 4K 2001; 1st 4K
2002-2006; 1st 12K 2002-2006, 2007;
World Indoor Championships 1st 3000m 2006
World Cup 2nd 3000m 2006
World Athletics Final 1st 3000m 2003; 1st 5000m 2006
World Junior Championships 2nd 5000m 2000
World Youth Championships 2nd 3000m 1999
African Championships 1st 5000m 2006, 2008
All-Africa Games 1st 5000m 2003
A note on Ethiopian names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name or first and second name together, the second name being the father's first name. (The grandfather’s first name is sometimes added as a third name, and is optional in much the same way that a Western middle name is frequently omitted.)
Prepared by Sabrina Yohannes, Elshadai Negash, John Manners and Richard Nerurkar for the IAAF Focus on Africans project. © 2002-2008 IAAF.