Somewhat lost in the shock of Kenenisa Bekele’s departure during the waning moments of yesterday’s men’s 12 km race at the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships, was the power, poise and determination displayed by Zersenay Tadesse, the man who succeeded him as World champion.
Consider this: Despite the brutal racing conditions, Bekele was competing as we’d come to expect, confidently biding his time before making his decisive move to claim a record sixth straight title. But then things began to unravel very quickly.
After experiencing some stomach problems, Bekele said, “Suddenly, I felt that my coordination was not good and that my mind was dizzy. I even started to doubt about how many laps I still had to run.” Confusion began to cloud his mind, Bekele said, “and I felt that I lost all my energy. I was slowing down and felt that I was losing control over my body as well as my mind. This is why I decided to stop the race."
In contrast, Tadesse’s performance over those pivotal final two kilometres was the polar opposite. Instead of slowing, he upped the pace and forged on, seemingly oblivious to the conditions that would eventually force 82 runners to drop out -- nearly 18 percent of all those who toed the start line in their four respective races on Saturday. If cross country provides the truest test of a runner’s ability to race on all surfaces and under all conditions, then the 25-year-old Eritrean made a few very significant strides towards joining the discipline’s all-time greats when he brought Bekele’s half decade reign to an abrupt and dramatic reign.
For his part, Tadesse shrugged of notions that he is now cross country’s standard bearer, and instead focused on what his achievement would mean for his small east African nation of 4.5 million.
“I just feel very happy and proud for all Eritreans,” the personable Tadesse said, just minutes after he was mobbed by a ecstatic group of fans who had traveled to Mombasa with hopes of witnessing what was previously deemed impossible.
Tadesse’s only been running seriously since 2002 - before that his sporting ambitions lied with cycling - and with his recent string of successes, it’s not particularly surprising that he’s managed to lead a surge of interest in athletics in his small homeland. His bronze medal in the 10,000m at the 2004 Olympic Games was the first ever Olympic medal of any kind for Eritrea; his World Road Running title in Debrecen last October was the country’s first global title in any sport.
And success apparently does breed success. Yesterday both the Eritrean junior squads produced solid silver medal performances in the team battle, defeating the better regarded Ethiopian squads into third. Behind Tadesse, the men’s senior team was a distant fourth.
After winning each of the last two World titles available to him, both by wide margines, Tadesse will now focus on the next: the World Championships 10,000 metres in Osaka in August where the aim will be once again to dethrone Bekele. With hot conditions expected there –a s well as in Beijing in 2008 - the Eritrean will certainly command the attention that he now so firmly deserves.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF