Numerous outrageous bets have been struck over the years on Ireland’s Leopardstown racecourse, but the odds against the double achieved by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele at last year’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Dublin would have had even the betting-crazy Irish jigging.
It is 100 years since the first ever international cross-country championship was staged (on a Scottish racecourse, at Hamilton) and during the intervening century, concealing form has become an art for the leading contenders.
Nowhere has this been more dazzlingly achieved than by Kenya, with their domination in recent years of the principal team and individual men’s events.
Last year, however, they were upstaged by Ethiopia’s newest thoroughbred, whose form had been cloaked in secrecy before the off. Dr Woldemeskel Kostre, the team’s wily manager, would not even confirm whether the coltish Bekele would start in both long and short-course events.
After victories which exhausted the sport’s lexicon of superlatives, the veteran doctor’s visage creased like a walnut. He grinned, savouring his protégé’s double: “quite ridiculous. It’s fantastic.”
And so it was. No man had previously won both races in the same championships. Bekele had done so at the age of 20. Little wonder, then, that national icon Haile Gebrselassie promptly tipped him as the man who would one day relieve him of his awesome portfolio of world track records.
Bekele is back in the saddle in horse territory this weekend, at Lausanne-La Broye’s National Equestrian Centre for the 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships (29-30 March).
Myth and misinformation already surrounds his defence, designed, we suspect, to conceal Bekele’s capacity to do what even lightning has yet to do: strike twice, twice.
He has been rumoured to have had his preparations undermined by everything from typhoid to tribal machinations. The truth may be more prosaic. “Bekele lost just a few days’ training, because of a bout of food poisoning,” said Michel Boating, who looks after him at Jos Hermens’ Dutch management agency, Global Sports Communication.
”He has been back running for almost four weeks, and is in very good shape.”
”It was written that he had been suffering from typhoid, but it was nothing so serious. It was badly-timed, however. Just before the Ethiopian trials. Kenenisa asked if he could skip these trials. He did not think it wise to race.”
“Because he was double IAAF World champion they agreed, but then someone raised some tribal issues, even though he was actually back in training by the day of the trial. It seemed they wanted him out of the team. You hear about this in Kenya, less so in Ethiopia, but it seems to go on.”
Bekele is from Arsi, like Gebrselassie, but there is increasing Tigran influence in Ethiopian athletics. “Bekele got a little insecure. Happily, it all seems resolved. We expect to see him run both, just as we did last year, though it is always up to the team management.”
There have been suggestions that Bekele depleted himself by running too many races. Certainly, with his immense new-won reputation, he is the man everyone wishes to beat on the country. It is a burden he cannot have expected to carry, but has worn well.
This winter, in five attempts, nobody has passed him. There have been victories in Portugal, Belgium, England, and twice in Spain, at Elgoibar and Sevilla. These demonstrated that Bekele is completely recovered from the tendon injury which blighted his 2002 track season, aborted after a 13:25sec 5000m in Milan.
That is not to suggest Bekele need merely turn up in Switzerland to win the 31st IAAF version of this most elemental title in the sport of athletics. Gebregziabher Gebremariam (his name means Servant of God, Servant of Mary) and Sileshi Sihine are the only runners to have beaten Bekele in almost a year and a half. They did so, on the road, when first and second respectively last November in the Great Ethiopian Run.
Gebremariam won the junior 8000m in Ireland last year, and the Ethiopian trial at the beginning of this month. Sihine counts a victory over World 10,000m champion Charles Kamathi of Kenya, this winter, over the country, in Spain. Both are entered for the 12k event. Their aspirations will be helped by the withdrawal of last year’s runner-up, John Yuda, of Tanzania.
Bekele’s compatriot, Hailu Mekonnen, won the junior title in 1999, and is entered for both races. He also held the World indoor two-mile best (2000) which was annexed this winter by Gebrselassie. He won the 4000m in the national trial, and was fourth in the long race.
The Ukrainian European champion, Sergiy Lebid, has the best chance of upsetting the anticipated African domination in the men’s long race. It is 18 years since the last European born winner, Carlos Lopes (POR), but Lebid will need to be as brave as was Bekele last year. He ran so fast that the Kenyans detailed to run the sting out of him could not even get on the pace. Kamathi himself graciously admitted as much.
This year, the Ethiopians hope to mount their greatest team challenge in the blue riband long event, but in Kamathi, Sammy Kipketer, Richard Limo, and Paul Koech, Kenya has a cohort well versed in protecting the dynasty.
Doug Gillon (The Herald) for IAAF