Athletics: The world falls in on Gebrselassie

Simon Turnbull looks at the night when Daniel Komen took a record off his great rival
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The Independent Online
It Was a bad night at the office for Haile Gebrselassie at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels on Friday. It was one to forget for Tony Whiteman too, not that his losses quite matched those suffered by the Ethiopian at the Ivo Van Damme Memorial Meeting.

At the start of the evening Gebrselassie stood unchallenged as the supreme distance runner of all time. By the end of the latest grand prix show, time had passed him by. The name of the world and Olympic 10,000m champion no longer adorns the world record books, at any rate not those listing purely the best outdoor performances of all time. First the 5,000m record he set in Zurich only last week fell to Daniel Komen, the Kenyan world champion at the distance, eclipsing it by 2.14 seconds with a time of 12min 39.72sec. Then the 10,000m record he clocked in Oslo last month was consigned to history by another Kenyan, Paul Tergat, the world cross- country champion for the past three years. The margin was even greater, Tergat pushing the time-barrier back 3.47 seconds to 26:27.85.

It was the least of Gebrselassie's concerns that he had fallen short of world record standard himself at the start of the night, missing Komen's 3,000m time by more than five seconds. Already in this record-blitzing summer, he had broken the Kenyan's world best for two miles and then lost it to him. Komen was outkicked by Gebrselassie in the Zurich 5,000m, but his world championship winning run from only three days previously was clearly still in his system. The 21-year-old Kenyan dropped down to 1500m in Monte Carlo last weekend and ran 3:29.46, faster than Steve Cram, Sebastian Coe or Steve Ovett ever did. His rivalry with Gebrselassie, only 24 himself, is likely to run and run for some time yet.

Gebrselassie is entered for the 5,000m at the Berlin Grand Prix meeting on Tuesday and Komen wants to run there with him too. "There's only one man capable of breaking my record," Komen said yesterday, "and that's Haile. The competition between us is the best thing that could have happened to athletics." The burgeoning East African rivalry is already a throwback to the days when Coe and Ovett traded world records, which was a sobering thought on Friday night as Whiteman lost his short-lived position at the shoulder of the golden 1500m oldies on the all-time British ranking list.

He had finished only sixth, behind Komen, when he ran 3:32.24 in Monte Carlo. But it was the fastest time by a Briton since the victorious Cram stopped the clock at 3:30.95 at the Van Damme meeting in Brussels in 1988. It also elevated Whiteman to fourth place, behind respectively Cram, Coe and Ovett on the British all-time list. He stayed there just six days, however. In eighth place in Brussels on Friday night, almost three seconds behind the triumphant Hicham El Guerrouj, John Mayock improved his best 1500m time from 3:33:21 to 3:31.86.

It was second-hand revenge, Whiteman's run in Monte Carlo having shunted Mayock's coaching mentor, Peter Elliott, down the historical British order of merit. But the business of chasing the ghosts of Britain's glorious middle-distance past is, like the East African assault on the world record books, might be unfinished yet. When Whiteman runs in Cologne today it will be Mayock's turn to keep an eye on the clock.

The pair might have met in Brussels, only Whiteman's Monte Carlo time was not good enough by itself to get him into the 1500m. He made the pace for Gebrselassie in the 3,000m instead. "I was told the 1500m field was made up of people who ran in the World Championships," he said. And Whiteman, a 25-year-old sports science student at Brunel University, did not go to Athens because the selectors chose not to show faith in him. He missed the trials because of flu and the discretionary place in the 1500m went instead to Matthew Yates, who failed to survive beyond the heats in the Greek capital.

Whiteman proved a personal point in Monte Carlo, where the clutch of notable scalps he claimed included those of Nouredinne Morceli, the Olympic and world record holder, and Reyes Estevez, the World Championship bronze medallist. He will not, however, be looking to thumb his nose towards the selectors at the AAA Championships in Birmingham today and tomorrow. Instead, after competing in Cologne, he heads for the World Student Games, which open in Palermo on Wednesday.

It might not be quite the global challenge he had in mind this summer, but the Athens reject has the chance to provide British athletics with a world champion of sorts.