Athletics: Bekele back to brilliant best as great successor to Gebrselassie

Class finish in Great Edinburgh Cross-Country shows Ethiopian has recovered from personal trauma
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The Independent Online

It was a gripping finale, more than worthy of the World Cross-Country Championships that the Scottish authorities hope will be staged on the course in 2008. His teeth gritted, his legs pumping in full sprint mode, three times Shaheen, a Kenyan cloaked in Qatari clothing, got a gap on Bekele. And three times the Ethiopian closed it. Turning into the finishing straight, Bekele surged clear with all the smoothness and power of a Rolls-Royce slipping into top gear. By the finish line, he had a four-second cushion, passing under the gantry clock in 26min 8sec, his index finger raised aloft and his face wreathed in a smile. Then he disappeared under a scrum of screaming, flag-waving Ethiopian supporters.

When he reappeared, Bekele was still beaming. "It was a great race," he said, in his rapidlyimproving English. "If strong athletes compete with me it is better. But I was never worried when Shaheen got the gaps because my sprinting is good."

The outcome was hardly surprising. You have to wind the clock back to 2 December 2001 to find the last instance of Bekele being beaten in a cross-country race; he finished runner-up to his compatriot Haile Gebrselassie in Dunkirk that day. On the track, even the clock has failed to beat the peerless Bekele, as the world records once treasured by Gebrselassie have been consigned to the historical dustbin. Still, he did have lost time to make up for in Edinburgh yesterday.

He should have been there a year ago as the star attraction at Holyrood. He was training for the race in the hills near his Addis Ababa home, on the morning of 4 January last year, when his fiancée and fellow athlete Alem Techale collapsed, clutching her chest. She died before he could carry her back to his truck. She was 18 and the world youth 1500m champion. They were to have been married in Addis on 8 May last year.

For three weeks, the distraught Bekele mourned at Techale's graveside. He cancelled his trip to Edinburgh and briefly stopped training but kept his promise to run in an indoor 3,000m race in Boston. He miscounted the laps, sprinted for the line with another circuit still to complete, and was beaten by Alastair Craggs of Ireland. He moved on to Birmingham and once again the spring was missing from his step. He lost to his countryman Markos Geneti in an indoor two-mile race.

The turning point came halfway through the four-kilometre short-course race at the World Cross-Country Championships at St Galmier in France last March. Shaheen stole a march of some 30 metres on Bekele with a sudden upping of the tempo. The formerly untouchable Ethiopian looked to be beaten again. But then, from somewhere deep in his diminutive frame, he summoned the spirit and the energy to close the gap. It was a defining moment.

Bekele surged onwards to victory, and won again in the long-course race the following day. In August he successfully defended his 10,000m at the World Championships in Helsinki and then turned the 10,000m at the Memorial Van Damme meeting in Brussels into the finest demonstration of speed endurance ever seen on a track, breaking his own record by 2.78sec with a time of 26min 17.53sec. Gebrselassie, at his absolute best, would have finished some 30m adrift.

And so the broken young man of 12 months ago finally made it to Holyrood yesterday, still with grief in his heart but with renewed strength, with a renewed sense of purpose, and with an irrepressible spring back in his relentless, smooth-striding step. "Things have got better for me," Bekele reflected. "This year I feel better. I still think about my girlfriend all the time. On 4 January it was one year since her death. I spent it with family and friends. We went to her grave for a small ceremony."

Having come to terms with his loss, Bekele has returned to the competitive arena as an even more formidable force. At the age of 23, he has already succeeded the great Gebrselassie, the so-called Little Emperor, as the undisputed king of distance-running. Still, even in a year without a global outdoor track championship, he is not lacking in motivation. By dipping down into middle distance territory indoors - with a 1500m race in Karlsruhe on 29 January and a mile in New York on 3 February - he intends to sharpen his basic speed not just for a tilt at Gebrselassie's indoor two-mile record at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham on 18 February but for further attacks on his 5,000m and 10,000m world records in the summer.

"I can get faster, God willing," Bekele maintained. It was a frightening thought for those he hunted down at Holyrood yesterday.