Athletics: New milestone entices a legend

Gateshead today can be the gateway for a record feat. FIRST NIGHT HAILE GEBRSELASSIE
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The Independent Online
BEFORE THE start of the first Emsley Carr Mile, in the 1953 British Games, the man blessed with the widest ever range of running talents was introduced to the August bank holiday crowd at the White City Stadium. Paavo Nurmi, 56 at the time, was paraded on a lap of honour around the West London track by open-topped car. At the peak of his physical powers, between 1920 and 1932, the finest of the Flying Finns won Olympic gold medals at distances ranging from 1,500m to 10,000m and broke world records from the mile up to to the 20,000m. The aficionados packed into White City must have thought athletics would never see his like again. But the crowd at Gateshead International Stadium this afternoon will see a track phenomenon whose spread of running ability is equal to that of the late, great Nurmi.

Haile Gebrselassie is the reigning world champion, Olympic champion and world-record holder at 10,000m. He is also the world indoor champion at 1,500m. In today's Gateshead Classic he will be striving to reinforce his reputation at the lower end of his scale. At 26, the Ethiopian will be running his first ever mile race. It will not, however, be just any mile race. Oslo's Dream Mile may have risen to become the world's premier four-lap contest but it does not have a history as rich as the Emsley Carr Mile.

It has been won by eight Olympic champions - Murray Halberg, Kip Keino, John Walker, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Said Aouita, William Tanui and Venuste Niyongabo - and by six men who have broken the world mile record: Walker, Ovett, Coe, Derek Ibbotson, Jim Ryun and Filbert Bayi. It has also been responsible for some significant miling breakthroughs.

It was in the 1976 Emsley Carr Mile, in the British International Games at Crystal Palace that Coe broke four minutes for the first time. The 19-year-old Loughborough University student clocked 3min 58.4 sec in a race won by Dave Moorcroft, the present chief executive of UK Athletics. And it was in the 1978 race, in the British Meat Games at Crystal Palace, that Steve Cram first made his mark, shattering Ryun's world age-best for a 17-year-old with a time of 3:57.4 in fourth place - just behind the 30-year-old Brendan Foster, who will be alongside him in the BBC television commentary box at Gateshead today.

Cram went on to become one of the all-time greats of the mile but never managed to win an Emsley Carr Mile. That Gebrselassie, who considers himself primarily a 10,000m runner, could achieve a four-lap feat which eluded the miler made in Hebburn underlines the extraordinary breadth of his talent. He is certainly capable of adding his name to the illustrious list of Emsley Carr winners, even though his rivals this afternoon will include the two leading latter-day Britons at the distance, John Mayock and Tony Whiteman. In winning the world 1,500m title in Maebashi three months ago Gebrselassie was too quick for Laban Rotich, the Kenyan who won the Commonwealth 1,500m final ahead of Mayock and Whiteman in Kuala Lumpur last September. He has also run 3:31.76 indoors for 1,500m, a time which roughly equates to a mile in 3:49.8.

"I really don't know how fast I can run the mile," Gebrselassie maintained as he prepared to leave his Dutch training base, in Uden, for Tyneside. "I don't think I could break the world record but I think I could run a quick time. I will be looking for a fast time at Gateshead and a good race too. It will be a good test of my speed. It would be nice to say I have won a mile race."

Win, lose or draw, Gebrselassie can be assured that his name will be added to the Emsley Carr Mile Trophy. The prize for winning the race is not a piece of silverware but a book, now running to a second volume, listing the result of every race and the signature of every competitor. It is bound in red Moroccan leather identical to that used for the Queen's Coronation Bible in 1953 and opens with this foreword: "In the Coronation year of 1953 an outstanding ambition of world track athletics is to achieve the four-minute mile. In order to encourage runners from home and overseas in this quest the News of the World has instituted this annual contest."

The race - named in memory of Sir Emsley Carr, who edited the News of the World for more than 50 years - did not produce a breakthrough four- minute mile in 1953. It did yield the most memorable miling performance of the year, Britain's Gordon Pirie, the English cross-country champion and six miles world record holder, outsprinting the American favourite Wes Santee in 4:06.8. The milestone mile run came instead in the annual Amateur Athletic Association v Oxford University match at Iffley Road, Oxford, on 6 May 1954, when Roger Bannister stopped the trackside clocks at 3:59.4.

It was not until 1956 that four minutes was broken in the Emsley Carr Mile, Derek Ibbotson equalling Bannister's former world mark, still a British record, with a shock victory against Ireland's Ron Delany. Ibbotson was a 5,000m runner at the time; he only entered the race because his fiancee wanted an extra ticket for the post-meeting banquet. Having unearthed previously hidden depths as a miler, though, the former miner from Huddersfield broke the world record the following year, running 3:57.2 in the London v New York match at the White City.

Gebrselassie is unlikely to threaten the existing world record today. The 3:44.39 Noureddine Morceli clocked in Rieti six years ago is some way beyond even his remarkable compass. His principal aim will be to sharpen up for an assault on his own 5,000m world record at the Bislett Games in Oslo on Wednesday. If he succeeds in that mission, eclipsing the 12:39.36 he recorded in Helsinki 12 months ago, Gebrselassie will stand apart in track history as the most prolific 5,000m world record breaker. He has already improved the record on four occasions, matching the historic deeds of Vladimir Kuts and Ron Clarke. No one has broken it a fifth time.

Gebrselassie has established 15 world records in all events, five fewer than Nurmi's total. At only 26, though, there are surely more to come from the 5ft 4in East African - even if his life story has already hit the big screen. Endurance, a Disney bio-pic with Gebrselassie's 15-year- old nephew playing the lead role, opened to favourable reviews in the United States last month.

The film includes the scene of the seven-year-old Gebrselassie risking his father's wrath by stealing the family radio to listen to commentary from the 1980 Olympics. It was Miruts Yifter's golden runs in the 5,000m and 10,000m finals in Moscow that inspired Gebrselassie to become a runner himself and it will be a source of inspiration to him today to be following in the spikemarks of his boyhood hero.

Yifter, now living in political exile in Canada, famously made his mark at Gateshead in 1977, leaving Ovett trailing with a blistering 54.6sec last lap in the Gateshead Games 5,000m. It was that stunning performance which moved David Coleman to christen the tiny Ethiopian "Yifter the Shifter". Gebrselassie can shift too, and more quickly than his idol - as the other Emsley Carr Milers will no doubt discover this afternoon.