Athletics: Time will be Gebrselassie's main rival

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HAILE GEBRSELASSIE came face to face yesterday with the rival he will confront in the National Indoor Arena on Sunday evening. The clock at the head of the back straight was not switched on, unlike the familiar beaming smile of the Ethiopian running phenomenon.

In the conspicuous absence of Daniel Komen, the adversary the athletics world wants to see him race, the challenge facing Gebrselassie in the Bupa Indoor Grand Prix will be to complete 10 circuits of the Birmingham track before the scoreboard's digits clock round to 4:54.07.

For all his undoubted accomplishments - three 10,000 metres world titles, an Olympic gold medal and 11 world records - the world beater who lived his early years in a mud hut remains too self-effacing to state that the odds are in his favour.

His glowing countenance yesterday, though, probably meant a little more than the fact that he happened to be at one with himself and the world.

"When you want to break a world record it is not an easy job," he said when asked about his prospects of beating the indoor record for 2,000 metres. "I want to break this record but I am not saying I will do it. You never know what will happen in a race."

The record will be 11 years old on Saturday. It was set on the Inglewood track at the Los Angeles Times meeting, a last hurrah for Eamonn Coghlan, the Irishman known as "the Chairman of the Board" and proved to be his sixth and final indoor world record. It ought to fall within the compass of a runner who has clocked 3: 31.76 for 1,500 metres and 7:26.14 for 3,000 metres in the current indoor season.

The latter performance, in Karlsruhe on 25 January, was Gebrselassie's 11th world record. Last Friday, though, it was eclipsed by Komen, who stopped the clock in Budapest in 7:24.90. It has left Gebrselassie holding just one global mark, the indoor best for 5,000m, and Komen intends to eclipse that in Stockholm a week today.

Gebrselassie defeated Komen over 5,000m in Zurich last summer but the Kenyan, three years his junior at 21, has confined three of his world records to history in the past seven months and also beaten him to the landmark achievement of running two miles inside eight minutes. It seems as quickly as the Ethiopian establishes his credentials as the supreme distance runner of all time, his East African shadow emerges with a counter- claim of his own.

The fact is that both possess the talent of the all-time great. They just happen to be pushing back the human speed limit at the same time, in the same way as Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett did at the height of Britain's golden middle distance era.

The pity is, like Coe and Ovett, their rivalry is being fought at arm's length - at the length of the clock arm, that is. Gebrselassie will be chasing Komen's 3,000m record when the Kenyan attacks his 5,000m figures in Stockholm.

"I don't know exactly when we will run together," Gebrselassie said. "I hope it will be in Zurich in August. The 5,000m there is very important."

And Sunday's meeting in Birmingham is very important for British athletics, launching as it does a new era of major domestic meetings. Gone in the wake of the British Athletic Federation's financial collapse, are the days of appearance money for all.

With a budget of $225,000 (pounds 140,000), half that enjoyed by the other meetings on the Ricoh tour, only Gebrselassie and 13 other athletes are guaranteed payment simply for turning up.

"This is the way of the future," Ian Stewart, the meeting promoter, said. "Only those athletes who can put bums on seats will be paid to appear."

Those capable of beating the clock, though, will have bonus money to chase, too - in Gebrselassie's case $20,000 for world record No 12 on Sunday.