Athletics: Guru behind a Disney dream

Simon Turnbull says Gebrselassie's world record story will run and run
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The Independent Online
As the man who guides the career of Haile Gebrselassie, Jos Hermens has made the art of world record-breaking his business. The Dutchman will be at trackside in the National Indoor Arena today, a distinctive bespectacled figure, urging his high-speed protege on another clock-chasing mission. There was a time, though, when Hermens raced into the record books himself. Indeed, his name can still be found in the world record section of the International Track and Field Annual. The list of long-distance world track bests reveals that the 45 min 57.6sec Gebrselassie's guru clocked for 10 miles at Papendal in September 1975 has not been bettered since.

"I can't believe it's still listed," Hermens said, chuckling at the reminder of his finest three-quarters-of-an-hour. "Nobody runs 10-mile track races any more. I can't help laughing about it. I mean, it's very easy to keep a record when nobody tries to break it. It's not exactly a big achievement, is it?"

It was a big enough achievement in its time, though. And it was not the only one that Hermens gained in his running days. He broke the 20,000m world record twice and the world hour record twice, becoming the first man to run 13 miles in 60 minutes. He also finished fourth in the European championship 5,000m race in Rome in 1974 and was tenth in the Olympic 10,000m final in Montreal in 1976. At one time he held every national record from 2,000m up to 20,000m but the Flying Dutchman from Nijmegen - "Bridge Too Far country", he points out - never quite made it to the very top.

"My big aim was to break the 10,000m world record," he reflected on Thursday. "At one stage I was close. I missed it by seven seconds, I think, behind Samson Kimombwa in Stockholm. That was my goal and then the marathon. I think, from the 10,000m times I ran and the hour records, that the marathon would have been my best distance. But I got injured when I was 28 and had to give up my running career."

Hermens' ambitions as a long-distance runner may have gone frustratingly unfulfilled but as the guru behind Gebrselassie he has enjoyed limitless success. The tiny Ethiopian he has nurtured from junior level has become, at 25, a sporting giant recognised in Hollywood. Endurance, the story of Gebrselassie's rise from the mud huts of Assala to the track and field heights, is due for release by Walt Disney in April.

"It's already out in Ethiopia," Hermens said. "We have had stadiums full of 10,000 people watching it. Haile is played by one of his little nephews, Yonash Zergaw. It's very different to the smooth American films. It tells you about the country and how the people live. It's not a Titanic kind of a movie."

Unlike the tale of the SS Titanic, Gebrselassie's story is still running. Under the guidance of Hermens, his coach-cum-mentor as well as his manager, he has already gathered three world 10,000m titles, an Olympic 10,000m gold medal and 14 world records, indoors and out. And further honours are beckoning, starting with the promise of world record number 15 in Birmingham today. Gebrselassie's target in the Bupa grand prix meeting is the indoor 5,000m record Daniel Komen set in Stockholm a year ago, 12:51.48. And the form he produced in the first two races of his indoor season - 7:26.80 for 3,000m in Karlsruhe and 3:34.28 for 1500m in Stuttgart - suggest it is not an unrealistic aim.

It was in the corresponding meeting last year that Gebrselassie memorably eclipsed Eamonn Coghlan's 11-year-old world indoor 2,000m record. It was an occasion to savour, with England's Ethiopian community transforming the National Indoor Arena into a small corner of East Africa and their hero keeping time to the techno beat of "Scatman" with his metronomic stride. The tune has become the traditional theme of Gebrselassie's annual early summer attempts to beat the clock in Hengelo, the Dutch town where he has broken four of his world records, and it will be booming out when the smiling Ethiopian goes on the record chase again in Birmingham today.

Milion Wolde, his training partner, will be present too, performing the pace-making duties. Wolde, winner of the Durham international cross country race last month, is another of the 140 athletes on the books of Global Sports Communications, the Dutch-based company run by Hermens, who will not have to look too far to spot familiar faces. In the International Athletes' Club cross country race at Crystal Palace in 1975 he beat a field that included Brendan Foster, who will be in the BBC commentary box today, and Ian Stewart, who will be omnipresent in his role as meeting director. He also beat Lasse Viren, whose world record 10,000m run (27:38.4) would not have put him within a lap of Gebrselassie's 26:22.36 in Hengelo last summer. Such is the glittering talent of Jos Hermens' golden boy.

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