Athletics: Gebrselassie in a different world

Simon Turnbull sees the pride of Ethiopia cruise into the history books
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ROGER BANNISTER, unfortunately, was unable to accept his invitation to the Palace yesterday. A previous engagement kept the retired doctor away from the CGU British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. It was probably just as well. The sight of an athlete attempting to run two consecutive four-minute miles might have left him in need of medical attention.

The feat has been achieved before, of course. At Hechtel in 1997 and Sydney last year, the Kenyan Daniel Komen ran the equivalent of Bannister's historic performance multiplied by two. Yesterday, roared on by a capacity 16,500 crowd, Haile Gebrselassie missed out on an eight-minute two miles by a mere 1.72sec.

It has been a poor summer by the Ethiopian's standards. He has been beaten, and beaten consistently, by his arch rival - the clock. Not since his indoor 5,000m run in Birmingham in February has he broken a world record. A 16th proved beyond his grasp yesterday on the track where Brendan Foster (in 1973) and Steve Ovett (in 1978) took the two miles time to new limits. Despite the traditional trappings of his record-chasing shows - pace-makers towing him past the half-way mark and Jos Hermens, his coach-cum-manager, shouting split times from the in-field - the little East African was beaten once again, though he did shatter Ovett's UK all-comers' record by 12 seconds.

It was different at Ibrox on 11 June 1904, when Alf Shrubb set off in solo pursuit of the two miles world record. Like Gebrselassie, the Sussex bricklayer was a metronomic little runner - all 5ft 6in and eight and a half stones of him. But he would have no pacemakers - he would never let anyone pass him - and asked trackside officials not to shout out his lap times. He emerged from his personal time warp at Ibrox in 9:09.6, a world record that stood for 22 years.

Hicham El Guerrouj has held the world mile record for a calendar month and a day now. The time he clocked in Rome on 7 July - 3:43.13 - remained intact yesterday, despite the Moroccan's bold attempt to eclipse it. Crossing the line in 3:47.10, he had to be content instead with breaking Steve Cram's British all-comers' record by the not inconsiderable margin of 2.39sec.

It was El Guerrouj's first race since he joined Cram, Ovett and Bannister - and Derek Ibbotson and John Walker, who were among the crowd yesterday - in the elite club of milers who have held the blue riband world record. He has been suffering from haemorrhoids, not to mention an athletic kind of pain in the bum.

In El Guerrouj's absence, Noah Ngeny has continued to suggest the world 1,500m title will not be the Moroccan's for the taking in Seville. The 20-year-old Kenyan finished 0.30sec behind El Guerrouj in Rome and has since been close to world-record times at 1,000m, 2,000m and 1,500m. El Guerrouj may well succeed in retaining his title in Seville but the upward arc of Noah's progress is projecting a picture that the North African's one-time mentor once faced.

It was Said Aouita, as co-ordinator of the Moroccan distance running programme, who persuaded El Guerrouj to move down in distance after taking the world junior championship 5,000m bronze medal behind Gebrselassie seven years ago. Like Aouita, who switched to the 5,000m due to the superior presence of Cram and Sebastian Coe at 1,500m, El Guerrouj could soon be contemplating a move back up to the longer distance.

For a man who has run 3:26.00 for 1,500m and 3:43.13 for the mile that seems a staggering prospect. But times stand still for no man at the record- chasing sharp end of track running - as the great Roger Bannister knows.