Usain Bolt is a man for the summer but Kenenisa Bekele is a man for all seasons. Which is one reason why, when Bekele was asked today if he had achieved already the legendary status that Bolt said last month he was striving for, he all but said ‘yes’.
Not for the first time this year – he first made the point in Rome, in July, after his 5000m victory on the third leg of the ÅF Golden League – Bekele said of his career: “I have achieved everything”. Olympic gold medals, World titles indoors and out, 11 senior individual World Cross Country wins, World records at 5000 and 10,000m.
Appropriately, on a day when dark Belgian skies and high winds seemed to be ushering in winter sooner than we would like, Bekele found himself discussing the coming indoor and cross country seasons – while trying to remind his questioners that there was a much more immediate objective – the ÅF Golden League $1m Jackpot.
If Bekele wins the 5000m at the Belgacom Memorial Van Damme meeting, in the King Baudouin Stadium, tomorrow evening, he will walk away with a minimum one-third share of the jackpot. That would increase to $500,000 if either Sanya Richards loses at 400m or if Yelena Isinbayeva is beaten in the Pole Vault. Or to $1m if both are defeated.
The annual Jackpot has proven more elusive for men than for women. While at least one woman has banked either all or a share of the prize in every year since the payout began in 1998, the men have left empty-handed in four of the last six years. As last man standing this year, Bekele said today: “It is very important for me to win.”
Emphasis on “very”.
When the 27-year-old Ethiopian said that he had achieved everything, he was thinking in terms of medals and records. But a major share of the Jackpot has yet to go Bekele’s way and this is his last chance. The Golden League reaches the end of the track tomorrow, to be replaced next year by the IAAF Diamond League.
Asked whether the win or a quick time was uppermost in his mind for tomorrow, Bekele said: “First of all I will try to win because of the Jackpot. I know that the Memorial Van Damme track is very fast and I want to run faster than I did in Zurich.”
At the Weltklasse Golden League meeting in Zurich last Friday, Bekele clocked 12:52.32. If he fails to run 12:50.18 or quicker, it will represent the fifth successive year – since he set the World record of 12:37.35 in 2004 - in which his season’s best has been slower than the year before.
Altitude training has lessened fatigue
Bekele is confident of a quick time after squeezing in four days of altitude training back home in Ethiopia between Zurich and here. He felt, in Zurich, that he was still suffering fatigue after his 5000/10,000m double at the World Championships in Berlin.
“I went back to altitude for four days and now I am feeling better,” Bekele said. “I am much better (fresher) than in Zurich. The Zurich meeting was very close to the World Championships and now I have recovered well. Normally, when I stay at low altitude for more than 10 days my body will be tired, so I needed to train at altitude.”
Bekele stands out as the only athlete to win at every outdoor global championships (World and Olympics) since 2005. In fact his victory sequence is twice as long as that achieved by any other athlete, covering six successive global events from his 10,000 metres triumph at the 2003 World Championships in Paris.
Bekele’s nod to Bolt’s brilliance
Yet, after years of fighting his way out of the shadow his countryman, Haile Gebrselassie, Bekele now finds that it is not he but Bolt who headlines the major meetings. But Bekele is as gracious towards Bolt as he has been over the years to Gebrselassie.
“In my eyes it is correct that Usain gets that much more attention because what he did was unique,” Bekele said in Berlin. “He not only won two golds but he broke two World records as well.”
This followed, in the wake of his 5000/10,000m Olympic double in Beijing last year, questioning over whether it was his goal to be more successful than Gebrselassie. Diplomatically, he replied: “It’s a difficult question. How can I answer?” Does Bekele count his golds and compare them with Gebrselassie’s? “In future I can count and compare,” he said.
In a head-to-head count of senior global gold medals and World records, Gebrselassie comes out on top at the World Indoors (4-1), World Road Running/Half Marathon Championships (1-0) and World records (27-6). But Bekele outpunches Gebrselassie in Olympic golds (3-2), World Championships golds (5-4) and World Cross Country titles (11-0). And don’t think that Gebrselassie wasn’t bothered with the World Cross. He had four failed senior attempts.
So what more can Bekele do, other than to forge further ahead on Olympic and World Championship golds? How about a first attempt at the World Half Marathon Championships, in Birmingham, on 11 October? “No possibility,” he said.
So when can we pencil him in for his Marathon debut (Gebrselassie holds the World record)? Repeating today his stock answer to the question, Bekele said: “In the future I have a dream to run a Marathon but I don’t know when.”
Perhaps next year, being fallow for World Championships and Olympics, Bekele might try to add to his one World Indoor title, in Doha (12–14 March), or regain in Bydgoszcz (March 28) the World Cross Country title he was unable to defend this year because of injury?
“I have not decided yet,” Bekele said. “I just want to finish this season happy and healthy. Next season I will discuss with my manager and family when I have enough time to think about it.”
3000m World record ambition
As for future World record attempts, Bekele was more forthcoming. “I want to attack the 3000m record,” he said. It has stood to Kenya’s Daniel Komen, at 7:20.67, since 1996. “This record is very strong, it has stayed for a long time,” Bekele said.
Lengthening shadows are also falling over Bekele’s 5000 and 10,000m World records. Not only does his 5000m mark date back to 2004, his 10,000m record (26:17.53) was set here in Brussels in 2005.
“Both are very difficult but if I train well and prepare hard I think I can break both,” Bekele said. The question of when met with a reply – “I can’t say” - as predictable as his finishing kick.
The Olympic treble?
By this time, Bekele had given 30 minutes to a press conference in which, to his credit, he spoke in English without the help of a translator or manager present. But he began to look weary from his return journey to Ethiopia and his half-hour grilling that it seemed unreasonable to raise again the question of whether a treble – 5000, 10,000 and Marathon – might enter his thinking for the 2012 London Olympics.
At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Emil Zatopek won the 10,000m on July 20, the 5000m on July 24 and the marathon on July 2. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Finland’s Lasse Viren repeated his double from Munich four years earlier then lined up in the Marathon the day after his 10,000m triumph but finished fifth.
Asked in Beijing whether he might try the treble at London 2012, schedule permitting, Bekele did not close the door. “This question is very strong,” he said. “It’s too early to think about it because I have so much time to think about it.”
Think about it Kenenisa. If you want to trump Bolt and Gebrselassie at one fell swoop, this is one way to do it.
David Powell for the IAAF