Athletics: Grief-stricken Bekele finds his feet again

Faltering champion summons inner strength following death of fiancée
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The Independent Online

As he crossed the finish line in the St Galmier Hippodrome yesterday, and made his way into the shade of the grandstand, Kenenisa Bekele could no longer hold back the tears. They did not spring simply from the joy of having won a seventh successive world cross-country title. "She is in my heart," the little Ethiopian said, pressing his right hand to his breast. "She is in my heart."

As he crossed the finish line in the St Galmier Hippodrome yesterday, and made his way into the shade of the grandstand, Kenenisa Bekele could no longer hold back the tears. They did not spring simply from the joy of having won a seventh successive world cross-country title. "She is in my heart," the little Ethiopian said, pressing his right hand to his breast. "She is in my heart."

The memory of Alem Techale had been with Bekele in Boston in January, and in Birmingham in February, when he was a pale, forlorn shadow of the runner whom even the world record book was unable to contain in 2004.

The spirit of his late fiancée was also with him yesterday when he rediscovered his winning touch midway through the senior men's 4.1km short-course race on the opening day of the World Cross Country Championships.

It was on 4 January that Techale collapsed while on a morning training run with Bekele through woods near Addis Ababa. She died, apparently of a heart attack, before he could get her to hospital. Just 18 and the reigning world youth 1500m champion, she had been due to marry her boyfriend and sometime training partner on 8 May.

Bekele's own heart has been broken. He has spent more time in the past two months travelling to Techale's grave, 150 miles from his home in Addis, than he has in training. His triumph in the scorching French sunshine yesterday has to rank as the greatest of a distance-running career in which the peerless 22-year-old has captured world and Olympic 10,000m titles and run the fastest 5,000m and 10,000m races in history.

Setting out with intent etched upon his face and forcing the early pace, Bekele looked to be beaten when Saif Saheed Shaheen stole a march of 30 metres on him going into the second of two laps of the sun-baked racecourse on the outskirts of St Etienne. From deep down, though, he summoned the energy to close the gap. It could well prove to be the defining moment of his running career.

With Shaheen a fading force, Bekele surged onwards to victory. He crossed the finish line, to thunderous applause, in 11min 33sec, five seconds clear of the Kenyan Abraham Chebii.

It was not quite Bekele at his relentless, smooth-striding best, but it was Bekele with a significant spring back in his step. After finishing behind Alastair Cragg in Boston and behind Markos Geneti in Birmingham, it was Bekele back in winning form, too - extending the run of cross-country victories he has enjoyed since December 2001 to a 20th race. It also put him on course for a fourth successive world cross-country double, with the 12km long-course race this afternoon.

"It is greater than my Olympic victory," Bekele reflected later, having regained his composure. "It is more significant because of what has happened. Joy comes frequently in life, but grief of this level is something you encounter only rarely. I have grief in my heart and I have joy.

"It has been very, very difficult for me because this is my first major competition since the death of my friend. To come out of it as a champion is a very special feeling. I thank God and all of those who have given me support, all of those who have shared my grief and encouraged me to come back as a runner."

As he spoke, Bekele already had another gold medal in his dazzling world cross-country collection, Ethiopia having prevailed in the team race. The British squad finished 15th, led home, in 53rd place, by John Mayock, a silver-medal hero at the European Indoor Championships in Madrid a fortnight ago.

In the women's 8km long-course race, Tirunesh Dibaba was in even more imperious form than Bekele. Into sprinting mode long before the finishing straight, she finished with a three-second margin over her fellow Ethiopian Werknesh Kidane. Already the 5,000m world champion on the track, the 19-year-old was following in the footsteps of her cousin, Deratu Tulu, a three-time winner of the long-course prize.

The British women's team lined up with hopes of matching the bronze medals they won in Brussels a year ago, but in temperatures of 26 degrees their challenge slowly wilted. Kathy Butler failed to make it to the finish line, dropping out with heat exhaustion. Only Mara Yamauchi made it into the top 30. A former Foreign Office diplomat in Tokyo, she came in 27th. The team had to settle for sixth place, with Natalie Harvey 32nd, Hayley Yelling 33rd and Liz Yelling 37th.

The British run of the day came from the 15-year-old Emily Pidgeon in the 6.1km junior women's event. In a race won by another Ethiopian, the 19-year-old Gelete Burka, the Cheltenham schoolgirl took 20th place. In terms of launching her international career, the fledgling Pidgeon was off to a flier.

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