Athletics: Yifter the Shifter in Gebrselassie's sights

Mike Rowbottom reports on the Ethiopian world-record holder aiming to take distance running to new techno-driven heights
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The Independent Online
IT IS a measure of Haile Gebrselassie's talent that he regarded his reclamation of the World 10,000 metres record in Hengelo on Monday evening as little more than a statement of intent.

After setting the new mark of 26min 22.75sec in his first outdoor run of the season - with the encouragement of a partisan Dutch crowd and a deafening loudspeaker rendition of his favourite techno track, 'Scatman' - he spoke about his plans to run even faster. "I wanted to run 26.20, or maybe 26.15 tonight," he said. "I know I can do it. And I will."

Asked if he could go under 26 minutes, he smiled and then said: "Why not? 25.59, that would be nice."

While that landmark may be out of reach of an athlete who, at 25, has already set 13 world records, you would not bet against him improving on his time in a season where he will not be distracted by any major championships.

"All the hard work he has done will pay off. He will go faster," said Gebrselassie's Dutch manager, Jos Hermens, who added that the World and Olympic 10,000m champion needed the music to keep the tempo during his record attempts.

Spectators on the European circuit had better prepare themselves for further techno barrages. Gebrselassie plans to run all six IAAF Golden League meetings this season, and will almost certainly seek to regain his world 5,000m record in Zurich.

He claimed that mark at the Swiss meeting last August, holding off Daniel Komen with a late burst of speed. But within nine days, the 21-year-old Kenyan had surpassed him, setting the current mark of 12min 39.74sec at the Brussels meeting. Within the space of an hour, Gebrselassie also lost his tenure on the 10,000m record as Komen's fellow-countryman Paul Tergat ran 26:27.85.

"I said to my friend, 'This is not my day'," Gebrselassie recalled. He vowed to regain both records, and now he is half way there.

But it looks as though he may not be pushed to further athletic heights this year by Komen, who was reported to have said at the weekend that he would not be running directly against the Ethiopian this season. Their rivalry, it seems, must be fought out at a distance as was the case with Seb Coe and Steve Ovett in the 1980s. However, Gebrselassie, just 5ft 41/2in and weighing less than nine stone, appears to be up for direct competition. "If he wants to run against me, he can," he said.

His deepest motivation is in representing the people of Ethiopia. In a country whose people are among the poorest in the world, Gebrselassie is a hero and his accomplishments were marked in February by the award of the Jesse Owens International Trophy at a ceremony in New York.

His ultimate ambition is to emulate his own hero, fellow Ethiopian Miruts Yifter in winning the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000m at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Yifter the Shifter - a nickname he earned through his ability to destroy opposition with sudden bursts of speed - achieved his double at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He was followed by, among millions of others, a small Ethiopian boy listening to a radio in a mud hut.

The boy was Gebrselassie, who recalled recently how he had risked his father's wrath by "borrowing" his radio and battery to listen to the Olympic commentary.

His father, who only allowed the radio to be used for listening to news programmes, never detected the temporary theft.

"I am sure he would have killed me if he had discovered what I had done," Gebrselassie said. Lucky for him - lucky for world athletics - that his father didn't.

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