StGalmier, FranceDespite much publicised recent tragedy the spirit and heart of the Ethiopian lion, the national animal of Ethiopia, remained unbowed in the resilient performance of the peerless Kenenisa Bekele in the men’s Short Race at the Hippodrome de Saint-Galmier on the first day of the 33rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in St-Etienne/St-Galmier.
Despite an unmatched triple-double gold medal winning World Cross Country pedigree coming into today’s race, Bekele surpassed even his previous accomplishments this afternoon in extremely hot (27°c) and sunny conditions.
The 22 year-old clearly followed the advice of his family “to concentrate on my work” and in the course of 4.196km put his competition reputation back on course and no doubt helped his wider emotional recovery from the death of his fiancée, Alem Techale, 2003 World Youth Champion at 1500m who died in January with a heart attack during training.
On a course which Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge – who will race tomorrow’s long race – described as ideal for steeplechasers, the World record holder and champion for that 3000m discipline, Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, inserted what he hoped would be a devastating kick as the bell sounded for the second of two laps. Yet the desired result, the dropping of Bekele who had been at the head of the field until that point, while briefly opening up a lead on the Ethiopian was ultimately not decisive. After passing the main hill approximately 500m into the last lap Shaheen’s distinctive bolt upright stance was seen to wilt slightly but this was not from the heat of the sun but due to intensity of Bekele’s own counter-attack, which saw the World and Olympic 10,000m track champion speed past.
Bekele was suddenly back into confident stride something which had been so uncharacteristically missing in his two (indoor) races of this winter. Although he looked behind him on a couple of occasions, enough to see that Shaheen had lost second place - ultimately he finished fourth - to Kenyan Abraham Chebii, perhaps showing that he didn’t 100% believe the performance his emotionally racked mind and body was producing, the 22 year-old Ethiopian maestro was safe and victory was attained in a time of 11:33.
Chebii was secure in second (11:38) despite a spirited late surge by his compatriot Isaac Songok, the Kenyan Trials winner, who took third in 11:39, as he ate up the ground in the last 200 metres. Shaheen well adrift came in fourth (11:42).
However, with last year’s bronze medallist Maregu Zewdie and Dejene Birhanu finishing together in sixth and seventh, in behind the Qatari Jamal Bin Salem (5th) - all three given the same time of 11:43 - the Ethiopians were packing very well. Gebre Gebremariam, who won silver in 2004, finished eleven seconds later in ninth and so decided the matter in Ethiopia’s favour. Therefore the team title (four to score) went to Ethiopia (23 points), ahead of Kenya (31) and Qatar (32).
“It was good, but it was difficult,” confirmed Bekele. “I did think about Alem of course. But I didn’t 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 presentation was not the same as last year. The Qataris, they did exactly what I needed: they made the pace fast.”
In yesterday’s IAAF Press Conference which had officially opened these championships, Bekele had been asked about the rumour that during his period of mourning in which he had had little instinct or desire to train, he had reportedly put on 3 kilos of weight. It was a question that encouragingly brought a broad smile to the face of what until then had been a understandably somber Bekele. Yet what else could he have done but smile as his gaunt frame aside his beard – Ethiopian Coptic church does not allow shaving during a period of mourning - looked a picture of its normal fitness. This impression was confirmed over the hippodrome’s grassy track today. Bekele if not flowing with his normal ease was more than back into his stride physically as well as emotionally. This was a delight to see.
Chris Turner for the IAAF
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