Choosers beggar sporting ideals

Norman Fox believes the Olympics will have to offer athletes prize money
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The Independent Online
WHEN Haile Gebrselassie first started to run serious races, rather than barefoot for fun as he always had in his Ethiopian village of Assela, he had to avoid competing at the same time as his older brother Tekeye. They only had one pair of spikes. Today as the man who broke the 5,000 metres world record by almost 11 seconds in Zurich, he runs in sponsored shoes for gold bars, Mercedes cars and huge amounts of money and looks forward to increasing his appearance fees by pounds 10,000 a time.

Gebrselassie has had a struggle to get among them but at the age of "24 or 25, I think" he is one of an elite group of athletes who have known poverty but now know that no major event can afford to be without them, not least the Olympics. The result is that the Olympic movement is looking down the barrel of professional athletics. Sponsorship may be in decline on the international circuit, but its stars know that, as the mainstay of the Games, they can hold the immensely rich International Olympic Committee to ransom.

Gebrselassie, a tiny (5ft 3in) man among the all-time giants of the sport, is one of the deserving nouveau riche. His mother died when he was a child. He has seven brothers and sisters and from the time he first began to make money on the international circuit he has assisted them by sending a proportion of his income to his father, a farmer.

In the winter he lives in Addis Ababa, but in summer comes to Europe and bases himself in Holland with his manager. There he lives modestly with other Ethiopian and Kenyan runners. He says he "bakes biscuits" just like at home, where the first Mercedes car he was given after winning the world 10,000m title in Stuttgart two years ago remains in its garage with only 42km on the clock ("it must have been my brother, I can't drive"). He was keen to retain his title as after the race in Stuttgart he was accused by the Kenyan Moses Tanui of constantly clipping his heels. "He made it sound that I had been a cheat."

There is little that unifies Gebrselassie's way of life and that of Linford Christie, for example, except a dedication to training and a commitment that allowed him to win the 10,000m world title (and another Mercedes) in Gothenburg only a week before he achieved his sensational 5,000m world record of 12min 44.39sec. But Christie and Gebrselassie have both emphasised by their recent achievements thatathletics must decide how to retain the status of its world championship and that the IOC must grasp the nettle of prize money for athletes who make the lucrative television fees possible.

On immediate reflection, the world championships seemed to have produced just about enough good performances for the IAAF to fend off any talk of introducing prize and appearance money in Athens in 1997. The better performances also slightly muffled criticism for holding the event every two years. But then came the pounds 3m invitation meeting in Zurich last Wednesday.

With dollar signs in their eyes, Christie suddenly stopped limping and Gebrselassie and the steeplechaser Moses Kiptanui were snatching records that they could have grabbed in Gothenburg. The question now is whether the Olympic movement is ready to put up the money to guarantee the Games a cast like that seen in Zurich.

Primo Nebiolo, the IAAF president, has already talked about the inevitability of the next world championships offering prize money rather than just cars for the winners. That will mean paying out anything up to $10m. It is not that for the moment the IAAF cannot afford it, but they know that television the world over is beginning to question the viewing figures for athletics, and grumbling. Not only that, many of the IAAF representatives are severely jealous of their allowances, which in some cases amount to over $400 a day when on duty at championship events.

The past seven days have brought athletics to the point at which it has to face its problems. When leading athletes such as the remarkable Kiptanui openly admit that they held back at the world championships in order to achieve their target and rich pickings at an invitation event a few days later, the point of farce has been overtaken.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC, knows that if the IAAF vote to have prize money at their future championship events the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta will almost certainly be the last not to offer similar deals. Putting together a 100m of the stature that Zurich enjoyed would cost the Games at least half a million dollars.

It will cost Linford Christie little financially if he carries out his threat to miss next summer's Games, and even if he did go to Atlanta he would only have a few weeks in which to profit by any success in terms of increased appearance money before he left the international circuit.

If Christie carries out his threat not to run in Atlanta at least that will save the IOC a small fortune. The latest twist in his ever-changing intentions is that after a knee operation at the end of the summer, he intends "running for myself". People in the North-east who saw him win in Zurich then heard he had pulled out of the Britain v United States match in Gateshead tomorrow will be the first to believe him.