A mournful shadow will be cast over the first major athletics event of the year in Britain, whether or not the grieving Kenenisa Bekele decides to travel from Ethiopia to run in the View From Great Edinburgh cross-country meeting in Holyrood Park next Saturday. Bekele, the International Association of Athletics Federations' reigning Male Athlete of the Year, was at home in Addis Ababa yesterday, still struggling to come to terms with the tragic sudden loss of his 18-year-old fiancée, Alem Techale, who collapsed and died while the couple were training in woods on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital last Tuesday morning.
His racing plans have been placed on hold, although he has spoken with his manager, Jos Hermens, about still running in Edinburgh, possibly as a tribute to the girl he was due to marry in Addis Ababa on 8 May.
"Nova International, the meeting organisers, have been excellent with us," Hermens said. "They have not been pushing us for a decision. We have spoken about it, and one minute Kenenisa wants to run in Edinburgh and the next minute he does not. He has even talked about running round the course as a symbolic gesture, but I don't know if that's a good idea. I will talk to Nova and then talk to Kenenisa again and we will see how he is at the start of next week."
Hermens was back at his base at Nijmegen in Holland yesterday after travelling to Assela, 150 miles east of Addis Ababa, to attend Techale's funeral on Wednesday. Like Bekele, Techale was one of the international athletes represented by Hermens' company, Global Sports Communication. She missed the 2004 track season because of injury, but in July 2003 she became the first Ethiopian woman to secure a global 1500m title when she won at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada.
While Bekele has established himself, at 22, as the great new force of world distance running, Techale had been expected to break new ground for her country in the middle distances. "We are talking about the loss of an athlete as a person, not of an athlete as a performer," Hermens said. "That is the tragedy. A young life has been lost. It is difficult to say if it was heart failure or something to do with the brain. The Ethiopian doctors who performed the autopsy could find nothing. You ask yourself if you could do more in terms of testing, but Alem had a check-up in Holland last year. Sometimes you cannot forecast these things.
"Obviously, Kenenisa has been left devastated - even more so with the way it happened. At first we thought Alem had died on the way to hospital, but she actually died in the woods while Kenenisa was running to get his car. She passed away before he could get back to her. He took her to hospital but there was nothing he could do. To have your fiancée die in that way is a terrible thing.
"I've been with Kenenisa for two days and he's very quiet. He has not said much. It is difficult, because everything has happened so quickly. In Ethiopia the funerals are very soon afterwards - in this case the next day. He is mourning now, and he's contemplating whether to go abroad. He feels if he stays in Ethiopia it will take him forever to mourn, because everybody is watching him, to see what he does, to see how he reacts. At the moment, he needs a few more days to decide what to do next."
Bekele had already mapped out his racing plans for the first quarter of 2005: the 9km feature race in Edinburgh next Saturday; an indoor race in Boston on 29 January, which would be his debut in the United States; an attempt to break Haile Gebrselassie's indoor two-mile world record in Birmingham on 18 February; and the World Cross Country Championships at St Galmier in France on 19 and 20 March. It remains to be seen whether he will have the motivation to fulfil such a high-profile schedule or whether he will withdraw from the competitive spotlight for a period of contemplation.
Bekele has carried everything before him in the past 12 months, with the exception of the Olympic 5,000m final, in which he finished runner-up to Hicham El Guerrouj. That was his only loss in 2004, a year in which he relieved Gebrselassie of his Olympic 10,000m crown and his prized 5,000m and 10,000m world records, and in which he also completed a third successive long-course and short-course double at the World Cross Country Championships.
Clutching the World Athlete of the Year statuette he received in Monte Carlo last September, Bekele spoke of his hunger to "win many more prizes" but talked most animatedly of all when asked about the prospect of his marriage to Techale.
"She is not the lucky girl; I am the lucky man," he said. "We have not discussed anything about children yet, but I don't want her to be my housewife. I want her to run for her country and make a name for herself."
Sadly, that name will be as the world youth champion who was cruelly lost at such a youthful age.
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