Athletics: Hail magic of Mr Hengelo

Ethiopia's shy legend seeks to recapture his world record in a country which has taken him to its heart
Simon Turnbull

studies the achievements

of a man dedicated

to beating the clock

HAILE Gebrselassie shrugged his slender shoulders and smiled his enchanting smile. The distance running phenomenon from Ethiopia had been asked whether he was famous in his homeland. "I cannot say myself," he replied. "It is not a good thing to say...'I am famous'." He winced as the very phrase passed his lips. As naturally self-effacing as he is naturally fleet-of-foot, Gebrselassie would never tell you he is mobbed every time he walks the streets of Addis Ababa. He would never tell you he is a hero in Holland either, though that will be patently obvious in Hengelo tomorrow night.

Some 20,000 locals will pack the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadium in the tranquil north-eastern town to help their favourite adopted son strike another lightning world record. Gebrselassie has already done it twice in Hengelo: in 1995, when he smashed the 10,000m record, and last summer, when he eclipsed the world best for two miles. Tomorrow night the tiny East African will be back on another clock-chasing mission: to regain the 10,000m world record. It is sure to be an occasion to savour, with the crowd roaring and clapping in time to the synchronised beat of Gebrselassie's metronomic stride and the sound of "Scatman", his beloved techno tune, blaring from the public address system.

"It's something very special when Haile runs in Hengelo," Jos Hermens, Gebrselassie's coach and manager, said. "There's a bond between the crowd and him. First of all he sees Holland as his second home. He has a house in Uden. He stays there every summer. And this will be the sixth year he has competed in Hengelo. He has broken two world records there and the people from that region, Twente, have really taken him to their hearts. They call him 'Mr Hengelo'."

And tomorrow night, in the backwater town he has put on the international map, Mr Hengelo could follow in the celebrated spikemarks of Mr Zatopek and Mr Clarke. Only the great Emil Zatopek and the great Ron Clarke have broken the 10,000m world record three times. The great Haile Gebrselassie will emulate them if he beats the trackside clock in Hengelo once again. He did it three years ago, smashing William Sigei's 10,000m record by 8.70 seconds with a time of 26 min 43.53 sec. And he reclaimed the record in Oslo last July, stopping the Bislett Stadium clock with 6.76 sec to spare, in 26 min 31.32 sec.

But time has moved on again for the 10,000m. The target Gebrselassie must chase tomorrow night is 26:27.88, the record the Kenyan Paul Tergat set in Brussels last August. Those who saw Gebrselassie cruise up the finishing straight in Oslo, smiling and waving to the crowd, would consider the digits to be well within his range. Not that the 5ft 4in cruiserweight himself will profess as much. "When you want to break a world record it is not an easy job," Gebrselassie said. "You never know what will happen in a race. It is better to wait and see what happens on Monday."

His mentor is making no promises either. "Obviously Haile wants the record back," Hermens, holder of the 10-mile world track record since 1975, said. "He came through as a 10,000m runner and he considers the 10,000m to be his main distance. It's the record he craves the most but it's getting tougher and tougher to break now. Haile ran 3 min 37 sec for 1500m at altitude in Addis two weeks ago, so he's in good shape. But a lot will depend on the weather on Monday. It was windy in Hengelo last year and it looks like it might be the same this time. A lot will depend on the rabbits too."

In Oslo the rabbits could only stay with the two-footed greyhound for 6,000m. Gebrselassie had to make his own pace in the final 4,000m. Tomorrow night, if Hermens' plans are not blown off course, it should be different. Four rabbits have been bagged for the occasion, among them Worku Bikila and Assefa Mezegebu, who assisted Gebrselassie's successful 10,000m attempt in Hengelo three years ago. "It's difficult to find people who are capable of doing the job," Hermens said, "because Haile wants to go rather fast."

Haile has been going rather fast for six years now, since he burst on to the international scene as the world junior champion at 5,000m and 10,000m. At 25 he has won three senior 10,000m world titles, an Olympic 10,000m gold and broken 12 world records. Yet, so rapidly have the times been a changin' for distance running, Mr Hengelo has just one record left in his personal collection: the indoor 2,000m best he set in Birmingham three months ago. In one night, in Brussels last August, he lost the 5,000m record to Daniel Komen and the 10,000m record to Tergat. Typically, he laughs at the memory now. "It was a little funny," he mused. "You know, I turned to a friend after the 5,000m and said, 'I don't think this is going to be my night'."

Tergat has the prize Gebrselassie covets the most but it is Komen who has been consistently overshadowing his achievements. Gebrselassie won their one meeting last year, the 5,000m race in Zurich, but in the past 10 months four of his world records have been consigned to the dustbin of history by Komen. The Kenyan, three years his junior, has also beaten him to the landmark feat of the first two miles time inside eight minutes. As quickly as the Ethiopian establishes his credentials as the supreme distance runner of all-time, it seems, his East African shadow emerges with a counter-claim.

The fact is both are blessed with the timeless grace of the greats. They just happen to be pushing back the speed limits at the same time, much as Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe did at the peak of Britain's golden middle- distance era. The pity is, like Ovett and Coe, their rivalry is being fought at arm's length - at the length of the clock arm, that is. According to Hermens, there will be no head-to-head this summer. "Haile will run against Daniel any time," he said, "but Daniel has said he wouldn't really like to this year."

So the clock is destined to be Gebrselassie's main rival on the European circuit in the weeks ahead. "Maybe it will be like last year," Hermens said, "with Haile setting records and Komen or Tergat breaking them. In the end it is only the history books that will say how good an athlete has been. And if you look at the progressive lists of world records you will see the names of Gebrselassie and Komen there, and Tergat too."

You will not, however, find the name of Miruts Yifter, who never broke a world record but whose 1980 Olympic double inspired Gebrselassie to run. Gebrselassie recalls risking the wrath of his father, Bekele, by stealing his radio to listen to commentary of Yifter striking 5,000m and 10,000m gold in Moscow. "I'm sure he would have killed me if he'd known," Gebrselassie reflected. "He did not like sport. He bought the radio only for news."

In those days home to Gebrselassie was the mud hut he shared with his parents and nine siblings in Assela, 125 miles from Addis Ababa. He now lives in the Ethiopian capital, though he spends his summers in Holland, where one of his brothers has lived in political asylum for four years. Tekeye Gebrselassie, a 2hr 11min marathon runner, fled his homeland because of persecution of the Amhara ethnic group. Haile refuses to discuss the subject, afraid of making life difficult for the rest of his family in Ethiopia. "It is too sensitive," he said. It is clear, nevertheless, that Holland, having welcomed his brother, will always be dear to his heart.

And Haile Gebrselassie will always be dear to Dutch hearts. That much will be clear tomorrow night. Even Fanny Blankers-Koen, the living national legend in whose honour the track was named, will be on her feet, roaring Mr Hengelo on his latest record mission.

Ten milestones in the history of the 10,000 metres

31 min 02.4 sec

Alf Shrubb (GB) Glasgow 1904

Inspired by skirling bagpipes, the Sussex tobacconist sets a world best 10,000m time en route to the 10 miles and one hour world records on Guy Fawkes' Day at Ibrox.

30 min 06.2 sec

Paavo Nurmi (Finland) Kuopio 1924

The greatest of all the Flying Finns gets close to the half-hour barrier with a record that stands for 13 years.

29 min 52.6 sec

Taisto Maki (Finland) Helsinki 1939

One of the lesser known Finns finally breaks 30 minutes, and his own record by 9.4 seconds.

28 min 54.2 sec

Emil Zatopek (Czech) Brussels 1954

The Czech soldier, the man they call the Human Locomotive, runs his fifth and fastest 10,000m record, breaking 29 minutes in the process.

27 min 39.4 sec

Ron Clarke (Australia) Oslo 1965

The Australian makes the single greatest advancement in 10,000m running, improving his own record by 34.6 secs and smashing through the 28 minutes barrier.

27 min 38.4 sec

Lasse Viren (Finland) Munich 1972

Epic Lasse tale. After falling just before halfway in Olympic final, Finnish policeman recovers to strike gold and claim Clarke's seven-year- old record.

27 min 30.8 sec

Dave Bedford (GB) London 1973

The clown prince of British athletics achieves his crowning glory on a Friday night at Crystal Palace. "It was just like catching a bus," he says.

27 min 22.47sec

Henry Rono (Kenya) Vienna 1978

The Nandi tribesman claims third world record of his golden summer. Those for the 5,000m and 3,000m steeplechase already lie broken in his trail- blazing wake; the 3,000m awaits the same fate.

26 min 58.38 sec

Yobes Ondieki (Kenya) Oslo 1993

At 32, and in only his second race at the distance, the Kenyan breaks the record by 9.53sec, the biggest improvement since Clarke's, and clocks the first sub-27 minutes time.

26 min 27.88 sec

Paul Tergat (Kenya) Brussels 1997

The Kenyan air force sergeant, second to Haile Gebrselassie in the 10,000m finals in the 1996 Olympics and 1997 World Championships, beats the Ethiopian's treasured month-old record.

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