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December 4, 2001
Gebrselassie rehearses in fog for London debut
Looming out of the London fog like the villain in a Victorian melodrama, Haile Gebrselassie rehearsed for photographers this week the steps he will take next spring in his marathon debut.
The little Ethiopian, acknowledged by his peers as the finest distance runner ever on the track, has targeted London's ancient streets for his first race over 42.195 kms.
Capturing Gebrselassie's signature for the April 14 race is a coup for race organiser David Bedford.
The former world 10,000 metres record holder could himself play a villain in the Christmas pantomime season these days with his long, curling grey hair and luxuriant moustache.
Instead he chose to play the part of the benevolent uncle at a news conference to introduce Gebrselassie and publicise the race.
"This is not a precise science," Bedford said as he reflected on his successful efforts to attract runners to the world's best big-city marathon. "This year has been very fortunate for us."
News conference compere Tim Hutching was having none of Bedford's modesty. "The longer this event goes on the luckier Dave gets," he said.
Appearance money must have played its part in attracting Gebrselassie to London. A news release, somewhat coyly, posed the hypothetical questions: "How does he feel about making the most eagerly awaited marathon debut in the history of running? And does he think he is worth the biggest pay cheque in athletics history?"
In accordance with accepted practice, officials refused to comment on the widely-quoted figure of $500,000 appearance money, neither confirming nor denying Gebrselassie would receive half a million to take part.
His Dutch manager Jos Hermens told reporters Gebrselassie had chosen London because of the quality of the opposition.
"He doesn't mind the money, he would run for free," Hermens said, adding quickly: "Don't tell David."
Stepping up to the marathon was always part of the greater plan for Gebrselassie after 15 world track records, including the current 5,000 and 10,000 metres marks, plus two Olympic and two world 10,000 metres titles.
He will follow figuratively in the footsteps of Abebe Bikila, who padded barefoot through the streets of Rome to win the 1960 Olympic gold medal. Four years later, now in running shoes, he retained the title in Tokyo by more than four minutes.
Bikila was to die tragically young in 1973 as the result of injuries sustained in a car accident. A tomb stands to his memory in Addis Ababa with an inscription in four languages.
After losing the Edmonton 10,000 metres world title race to Kenyan Charles Kamanthi in August, Gebrselassie signalled his intentions for the London race by winning the world half-marathon title in Bristol, England, last month.
He will now put in four solid months of training at home for London, where he will come up again against his great Kenyan rival Paul Tergat. The five-times world cross country champion finished second behind Gebrselassie in two Olympic and two world 10,000 metres finals.
Understandably speculation about a possible world record, even a mark under two hours five seconds, will dominate the build-up to the 2002 race. The current world mark of two hours five minutes 42 seconds is held by Moroccan-born American Khalid Khannouchi.
Khannouchi is quoted at 6-1 behind Gebrselassie and this year's champion Abdelkader El Mouaziz, who are joint 2-1 favourites. Serena Momberg, a spokeswoman for English bookmakers William Hill, said betting was now open on next year's race because of the intense interest in Gebrselassie's debut.
Gebrselassie and Hermens are both cautious about the prospects of a world best in London, preferring to concentrate on winning the race.
"It's very difficult to say the time," said Gebrselassie. "It's more difficult when you move to a longer distance."
Hermens said he thought Gebrselassie could clock under 2:05 eventually but cautioned that it was unlikely to come in next year's London race.
He said Gebrselassie had already adjusted to the longer distance, running on the middle of his feet rather than on his toes, and now planned to bring his track prowess to the roads.
"It's his big dream to become the world champion and hopefully break the world record in the marathon," Hermens said.
"He's the best ever. He is a self-made man and he learns very quickly."
Gebrselassie, whose command of English has improved markedly over the past year, gave one possible insight into his extraordinary athletic prowess.
He has two daughters and another child on the way. His 75-year-old father has an 18-month-old son by his second wife.
"Maybe I have become a good athlete because our genes are so strong," he said.
Mail Sports Editor
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