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Athletics: Hail Milion, the new Gebrselassie

Simon Turnbull looks at a runner who could be in a world of his own
HE HAPPENS to be a member of the Bank Club in Addis Ababa and when he runs he looks a million dollars. He is, in actual fact, a Milion. Milion Wolde, who makes his first appearance of the winter season in the Great North cross- country meeting in Durham on Saturday, is a teenage runner with a precious talent. Haile Gebrselassie, the man voted world athlete of the year, certainly appreciates his value. Wolde is being groomed as a potential successor to the imperious Ethiopian ruler of the distance running world.

At 25, Gebrselassie has broken the 5,000m world record four times, the 10,000m record three times, has collected a hat-trick of world championship 10,000m titles and has struck Olympic 10,000m gold. But it took until the age of 21 to break 13 minutes for 5,000m. At 19, Wolde has already smashed through the barrier Dave Moorcroft approached with his epic world- record run in Oslo in 1982 and which Said Aouita finally breached five years later. Gebrselassie's best time as a 19-year- old was 13min 39.06sec. He was surprised when Wolde clocked 12:59.39, five seconds behind him, in the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich in August. He was not, however, entirely staggered.

Gebrselassie, you see, has first-hand knowledge of Wolde's capabilities. The teenage prodigy is a member of his training group. "They are pretty close," Jos Hermens, Gebrselassie's long-time manager and coaching guru, said. "They train a lot together. Milion helped Haile with his 10,000m and 5,000m world records in the summer. He has great potential. Running under 13 minutes shows that."

So does the competitive record Wolde carries with him into the senior ranks in the new year. He has twice been crowned a world champion at junior level in 1998, having won the junior race at the world cross-country championships in Marrakesh in March and taken the 5,000m title at the world junior championships in Annecy in August. In the later instance he followed in the immediate footsteps of the other great protege in Gebrselassie's training group, Assefa Mezegebu, winner of the world junior 5,000m crown in 1994 and ranked second in the world this year with 12:53.84. The previous two world junior champions at the distance were not bad runners either: Daniel Komen, the reigning senior 5,000m world champion, and Gebrselassie, who has actually followed in the spikemarks of Wolde and Mezegebu this year.

In June Gebrselassie was towed on course to the 5,000m and 10,000m world records by his young compatriots, in Helsinki and Hengelo. Usually, though, Wolde spends his running life in Gebrselassie's slipstream.

"He trains with Haile three times a week in Addis," said Getaneh Tessema, the Ethiopian who helps the Dutch-based Hermens look after the Gebrselassie group. "He also comes with Haile to Holland to train in Uden when they are on the European circuit.

"Milion will be competing indoors in Europe this winter, in 1,500m and 3,000m races. But he will be doing a few cross-country races first, starting with Durham. He was a steeplechaser when he first started in athletics but he was not so good. When he stopped with the steeplechase he found out how good a runner he was. Haile was surprised when he broke 13 minutes in Zurich. He expected him to do it one day but not at such an age.

"Milion is still young and when you see him running he is really unbelievable. He is very relaxed. With more experience and more training, I think he is going to be very good in the future."

He is already very good by any standards, but one day he might be good enough to become the second Wolde to conquer the distance-running world. Milion, though, is no relation to Mamo Wolde, who won the Olympic marathon in Mexico in 1968. "There are many people in Ethiopia with the name Wolde," Tessema explained. "It is like your Smith or Jones in England."

Or Brown, perhaps. Jon Brown, in fact, will be leading the home challenge when the new Wolde comes to Durham on Saturday.