Athletics: Bekele helps Gebrselassie stay on track

The Little Emperor hunts his 18th world record today - with a little help
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The Independent Online

It takes a lot to halt Kenenisa Bekele in his tracks. At the last two world cross-country championships, in Lausanne in March and in Dublin 12 months previously, nothing has stopped the young Ethiopian. With his smooth, seemingly effortless stride, the cattle-farmer's son has left the opposition trailing helplessly in his high-speed wake in both the long-course and short-course races.

Suggest to him that he is the "new Haile Gebrselassie," though, and "Kenny" Bekele - as the quietly spoken, painfully modest east African prefers to be known - automatically flinches. A fortnight short of his 21st birthday, Bekele might stand unchallenged as the king of cross-country, with an unprecedented double double to his name, but he has a long way to go to catch up with the king of distance running. A mighty long way.

At six weeks past his 30th birthday, the old Haile Gebrselassie does not have a world cross-country title to his name (he has one bronze medal from 1994) but the 5ft 4in Ethiopian has a record on the track that matches his imperious nickname "The Little Emperor". Indoors and outdoors, he has won 10 global senior titles on the track and broken 17 world records.

In the eastern Dutch town of Hengelo this evening, Gebrselassie will be going for world record No 18. And it is possible that Bekele could help him get it. In the annual FBK Games, the traditional curtain-raiser to the European summer track circuit, Gebreselassie will be attempting to break the 10,000m record he set in the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadium five years ago.

It will not be easy. The standard he set in Hengelo in 1998, 26 minutes 22.75 seconds, works out at a speed of 63 seconds per lap - for 25 consecutive 400m circuits. Still, it should help that Bekele will also be in the field this afternoon, pushing the pace along at the front if not challenging all the way for the world record.

Gebrselassie certainly thinks so. "With Bekele there, I think we can go even faster," he said. "We can help each other to break through the barriers that will be necessary at 7,000m and 8,000m."

On his record run in Hengelo five years ago, Gebrselassie was left to chase the clock on his own after being towed through 5,000m in 13min 11.8sec by Assefa Mezgebu, his training partner and compatriot, who will also be running today. Two years ago, Gebrselassie was beaten by Mezgebu to second place in the world championship 10,000m final in Edmonton, but he has recovered from the Achilles tendon problem that affected him in 2001 and from the calf injury that plagued him last year, when he finished third in the London Marathon and aborted an attack on the world hour record in Hengelo at half-way.

The Little Emperor was back to his regal best in the 2003 indoor season, smashing the two-mile world record and sprinting to victory in the world indoor championships, both stunning performances achieved on the track at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. "I am thinking now that the 10,000m world record is a possibility," he said after his two-mile tour de force - at 8min 4.69sec, an improvement of 4.97sec on Haylu Mekonnen's record.

Gebrselassie has already broken the 10,000m record on three occasions: in Hengelo in 1995 and Oslo in 1997, as well as in Hengelo in 1998. A fourth improvement today would make him the most prolific advancer of the blue-riband mark of distance running since Emil Zatopek, the Czech soldier who broke the record five times from 1949 to 1954. It would also sweep Gebrselassie on course for a fifth 10,000m world title in Paris in August, and a third Olympic 10,000m crown in Athens next year. "I would like to remain king at this distance for a little longer," he said.

Gebrselassie sees Bekele as his natural heir. They train together three days a week in Addis Ababa and share the same manager, Jos Hermens, the Dutchman who organises the annual Hengelo meeting. Bekele, though, has yet to prove his pedigree as a track runner.

Today's race will be his first at 10,000m on the track, and his lack of experience was evident last month when he was beaten in the 5,000m at the Ethiopian championships by Sileshi Sihine, the world junior 10,000m silver medallist, who will also be among Gebrselassie's fellow countrymen and rivals in Hengelo today.

"I am not like Haile," Bekele said. "He is a different runner to me. I am not as good as him on the track. I do not have the speed to finish like he can.

"I need to work more on the track. I can only train like hell and pray to heaven that I will ever reach the level of Haile."