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Memory of Bikila dogs Gebrselassie’s move to marathon

Memory of Bikila dogs Gebrselassie’s move to marathon
Steven Downes for the IAAF
4 October 2001 – It does not matter how fast he runs, whenever he is racing, Haile Gebrselassie can always hear from just over his shoulder the pat, pat, pat of bare feet padding along the Via Appia. No matter how hard he tries, Gebrselassie cannot outrun his sporting destiny.

Gebrselassie, arguably the greatest distance runner in history, is in Britain next weekend to take the next step towards fulfilling that destiny, by racing in the IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships being staged in Bristol on Sunday. His appearance in the 13.1-mile event for the first time is a natural step towards his ultimate goal, the marathon itself.

Ever since Abebe Bikila ran barefoot to Africa’s first Olympic gold at the 1960 Games, with the cobbles of the Appian Way illuminated by burning torches as he passed some of Rome’s ancient monuments, all his Ethiopian successors have been steered towards the 26-mile 385-yard classic event. For strife-torn and famine-ridden Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest nations, the value of marathon gold is priceless.

Gebrselassie was born in 1973, the year that Bikila, crippled after a motor accident, died. When he went to school, young Haile will have seen posters of Bikila on his classroom walls. When he visited the capital, Gebrselassie will have been shown the statue of Bikila outside the national stadium, or visited the runner’s grave.

Everything Gebrselassie has achieved in a fantastic career, with his 15 track world records, four world titles at 10,000m and two Olympic golds, has had to measure their greatness against Bikila’s two Olympic marathon titles.

Now, at 28, Gebrselassie appears to have reached the point in his career where he is ready to put himself to the ultimate athletic test. But even he is wary of stepping up to the marathon, and stepping out of Bikila’s shadow.

“Three thousand metres, 5,000, 10,000 metres - there is not so much difference,” he says, defying the current athletics wisdom that suggests that only specialisation in one event is possible in the competitive 21st century. “But 10,000 to the marathon, that is a big difference, and sometimes it has been difficult for some athletes.”

In a decade-long career since winning a world junior title in 1992, Gebrselassie’s achievements on the track have been astonishing - effectively seeing off the dual challenges of his Kenyan rivals, Daniel Komen and Paul Tergat, both great champions in their own right, and including stepping down in distance to take on the middle distance runners and winning the 1,500 and 3,000 metres world indoor double, a feat unlikely ever to be repeated.

But his caution about the marathon is well placed. After winning his second Olympic 10,000m gold in Sydney, Gebrselassie had been expected to make his marathon debut this year, but an operation a year ago on a troublesome Achilles tendon postponed that, and contributed to his losing his 10,000m world championship in Edmonton - a title he had held since 1993.

A week ago, Gebrselassie showed he is on a road to recovery, winning an international 10km event in Prague, a promising warm-up for next Sunday’s jaunt around the docks and streets of Bristol.

Even at 5ft 4in, Gebrselassie stands out in a running crowd, with his ramrod straight back and barrel chest containing a phenomenal combination of heart and lungs, and his constant smile. But his deceptively long stride may be less well suited to road running. His attempts to win the world cross-country title were curtailed when the team running tactics of the Kenyans, supporting Tergat to his record five titles, often jockeyed and jostled the lone Ethiopian out of his stride. Gebrselassie hasn’t been back to the mud and hills since.

“A distance runner who runs on his toes like a sprinter, bouncing like a rubber ball kilometre after kilometre, it’s incredible,” Gebrselassie’s manager, Dutchman Jos Hermens, says. “Watch him in slow motion and it’s like watching Carl Lewis.”

But the strains of such a stride over 26 miles - or even a 13-mile half-marathon - on rock-hard roads may aggravate the injuries which in the past have persuaded Gebrselassie to abandon his romantic notion of trying to emulate another Ethiopian running hero, Miruts Yifter, by trying to win the 5,000-10,000 track double. Modern, fast tracks have battered Gebrselassie’s legs and blistered his feet into submission.

THE seventh son of a shepherd, born into the thinnest of mountain air some 10,000 feet above sea level in Arssi, a three-hour bumpy drive south from Addis Ababa, the young Haile would run the three miles to school and back each day, despite complaints from his father that he was neglecting his studies.

“My father was against sport. It was really that he did not know sport,” Gebrselassie says, recalling the time in 1980, when he used his father’s radio to listen to the exploits of Yifter at the Moscow Olympics, and the scolding he received for such wasteful use of his father’s precious batteries. “He knows about sport now though,” Gebrselassie says, beaming a trademark smile.

Like all the best Ethiopian runners, a legend has grown up around Gebrselassie from that time, suggesting that to avoid a scolding from his father, he would carry his schoolbooks under his arm on the run, creating his trademark running style, with a crooked left arm.

One of his older brothers, Takye, was a runner, and made a gift of a pair of training shoes to Haile when he was 14. “But I threw them away,” he says, “they were too heavy. I preferred to run barefoot.” This from a man who, in 1995, would sign a five-year deal with a sports shoe manufacturer to promote their product that was worth $2.5 million.

Gebrselassie was 16 before he visited Addis Ababa and encountered electricity and telephones for the first time. There, he ran his first proper race - inevitably, the marathon. It took him a modest 2hr 52min, and he finished only 99th. “I thought my running career was over when I saw my finishing position,” he recalls. “But once the stiffness was gone from my legs, I decided to continue.”

The running world has been revelling in his achievements ever since. His vanquished rivals - Tergat, with two Olympic and two world championship silvers won a half-stride behind Gebrselassie, and Komen - have been ruing the little Ethiopian’s change in fortunes, too. Komen’s career seems to be over, crushed by the repeated disappointments of defeat, while after taking second billing in the 10,000m in Sydney in one of the greatest distance races ever seen, Tergat has moved on to the roads.

Gebrselassie revelled in their on-track rivalry. “Without them it would have been very difficult,” he says. “When they break my records, it pushes me to improve myself, to try harder.”

Gebrselassie may yet resume his rivalry with Tergat. The Kenyan, winner of the London Marathon last April and holder of the world best for the half-marathon at 59min 17sec, will be missing from Sunday’s race in Bristol, preferring instead to race the Chicago Marathon.

But Tergat is expected to return to London to race next spring, and that may be where he and Gebrselassie renew their acquaintance. “I may be involved in the organisation of the Rotterdam Marathon,” says Gebrselassie’s manager, Hermens, “but Haile is my client, and I have to make sure he gets the best deals.” Such a deal is likely to include hefty incentives for a world best.  “I have no doubt he could run the marathon in 2hr 5min,” Hermens says.

First, though, comes Bristol next Sunday, and the chance for Gebrselassie to add to his haul of world titles. For Haile Gebrselassie, an athlete with an acute sense of running history, he already knows that, however fast he runs, it will never be quick enough to outrun the ghost of Bikila at his shoulder.