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September 25, 2000
Haile the champion!The Rediff Team
Haile Gebrselassie has a crook in his left arm when he runs. He got that as a child, through carrying books when running to school.
It is surprising he doesn't have a crick in his neck, from carrying all the medals he has won in the course of seven years of unbeaten reign in one of the most gruelling runs there is -- the 10,000m.
27-year-old Gebrselassie ran the race of a lifetime in the 10,000m, concluding event on a star-studded athletics programme on the day, to defend the title he took in Atlanta 1996.
As always, the Ethiopian settled, right at the outset, into second place. Wound up his personal metronome. And then ran on auto-pilot for all but the last 400m. Or so it seemed. Yet the 10,000 is an amazingly tactical race, and the full range was on display as the Kenyans and the Ethiopians, the strongest runners in the field, switched tactics, occasionally sending a man out on the outside to try and draw out the leaders and tire them.
Through it all, Gebrselassie ran on, unmoved, untroubled, untouched by self-doubt. The lead changed hands rapidly, but the identity of the man in second place, one step behind the leader, never did.
Heading into the final four laps, it was a bunched leader field, with two Ethiopians, three Kenyans, and a Moroccan fighting it out. One Kenyan, burnt out by the effort of trying to play pacemaker to a star field, was lagging way behind.
For three laps, it was pressure tactics at its best, as the Kenyan made a feint, then the Ethiopian, then the Kenyan again, each making as if to make a break.
Yet Gebrselassie ran on.
Into the final lap, and it was still between the two Kenyans, and the two Ethiopians. The last 200 is when the Ethiopian star traditionally bursts into a heart-stopping, lung-bursting kick. Kenya's Paul Tergat, who had earlier recorded the fastest time this year, of 27:08.87 in Brussels in August, and John Korir, were right up there with the champion, Korir in the lead at the start of the last lap.
It was Tergat, though, who broke free, at the 300m mark, and began sprinting into the lead. It was an obvious attempt to pull away from the champion, try and break his heart on the home stretch. But -- and how frightening can it be for a runner, this ghostly presence pad-padding at his heels no matter what he does? -- Gebrselassie ran on, running his own race, refusing to be pressurised. Until the 200m mark, when suddenly, explosively, the Ethiopian took off.
Tergat and Gebrselassie raced down the final hundred, at a speed that would have done credit to Michael Johnson. It seemed, for agonising moments, as though the champion had left it too late. But a lifetime of doing this must have given him the ability to judge it to a nicety -- with 10m to go, with a record crowd of 112,000 roaring encouragement. the runners drew level. With 5m to go, Gebrselassie produced one final kick -- and at the tape, it was Haile Gebrselassie, home in 27:18.20. Tergat took the silver, in 27:18.29. And Assefa Mezgebu of Ethiopia came in third in 27:19.75.
But there was only one image that endured -- the big, toothy grin of the long-distance legend as he breasted the tape.
It is a grin, and a story, that has assumed legendary proportions. It has served as inspiration for books, it has created its own pantheon of myths (vide the one which says that during his childhood, when runaway horses had to be chased down, it was little Haile who was invariably whistled up), it has even fuelled a Disney biographical motion picture, Endurance.]
Gebrselassie is just the latest in a long line of Ethiopian running greats -- the names of Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde and Miruts Yifter rolling off the tongue like a drumroll of honour.
Gebrselassie's rise to fame began in 1993, though it was in 1996, when he claimed Olympic gold in Atlanta, that the running world really began to sit up and take notice. Soon -- in June 1998 -- they were rubbing their eyes in disbelief when he did the 10,000 in 26:22.75 in Hengelo, Holland; then hopped on a plane and got to Helsinki, Finland, to do a 12:39.36 5000 metre run.
From 1993 to Sydney 2000, he has held his world 10,000 metre title against all comers.
His training programme is in itself the stuff of legend. He never runs the full distance, maintaining an idiosyncratic programme depending on "how my body feels". And leading up to actual competition, it is the 800, 400 and 200 that he runs, perfecting the acceleration and speed that burns up the track and reduces rivals to quivering, burnt out wrecks.
Sydney added another chapter to the Gebrselassie legend. And the way he ran on the day, it is clear that the final chapter is still a long way from being written.
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