Athletics: Heartbroken Bekele laments a greater loss than another race

Offstage in the National Indoor Arena, where the athletes collect their kit after racing in the Friday-night Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix, it is difficult to hear yourself think.

Offstage in the National Indoor Arena, where the athletes collect their kit after racing in the Friday-night Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix, it is difficult to hear yourself think. Dame Kelly Holmes has just stepped out on to the Birmingham track, to thunderous applause from the capacity crowd. She has already performed a pre-race lap of honour, raising her Olympic gold medals aloft, with her adopted signature tune, "There Is Nothing Like A Dame", blaring over the public address system.

Her beaming smile matches the glint of her medals. Her only worldly care, as she later relates in this same spot after winning the 1,000m with impressive ease, is deciding whether to put her golden reputation on the line at the European Indoor Championships, which open in the Palacio de Deportes in Madrid on Friday week.

For the moment, however, it is the diminutive, crestfallen figure of Kenenisa Bekele that is leaning on the barrier. The young Ethiopian is not so much discussing his own future plans as struggling to come to terms with the cruel reality of the here and now. The sweat streaming from his slender, compact frame is soon mixed with the tears he fails to hold behind his eyes.

Bekele was the athlete who had it all in 2004 - well, virtually all. He lost the Olympic final at his secondary distance, 5,000m, to Hicham El Guerrouj. Aside from that, however, Bekele swept all before him last year, relieving Haile Gebrselassie of his Olympic 10,000m crown and also his prized world records at 5,000m and 10,000m. He also completed a world cross- country double for the third successive year, winning the long-course and the short-course races.

Thus far in 2005, the air of invincibility has been replaced by a shroud of vulnerability. Out on the Birmingham track, where Bekele has just finished the two-mile race, the familiar bounce was conspic- uously absent from his stride. He could only mount a brief, token counter-challenge when his fellow-countryman Markos Geneti moved alongside and then ahead of him on the final lap. Head bowed towards the floor, Bekele was lost in thought as he passed the finish line in second place and made the sign of the cross.

Asked now if he is surprised to have been beaten, he forces a smile and says, in broken English: "No. For me, it is difficult now... I lose my girlfriend. This is my problem... I lose my girlfriend, one month [ago]. This is why I do not do good training, I do not run well in race."

On the morning of 4 January Bekele was training with his fiancée, Alem Techale, when she suddenly collapsed in the middle of a wood on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Unable to revive her, he raced off to collect his jeep. She died before he could get her to hospital. She was 18 and the reigning world youth 1500m champion. The couple were to have been married in Addis on 8 May.

On 29 January Bekele returned to competition at the Boston Indoor Games and miscounted the laps in the 3,000m. He sprinted for the line when he still had one circuit to complete, and was subsequently overtaken and beaten by Alastair Craggs of Ireland.

"It is difficult for me to think about running," he says now, speaking in public about his loss for the first time. "I have my girlfriend in my heart. It is difficult..."

It is too difficult, in fact, for Bekele to continue. He brushes back the tears and politely departs. It is left to his manager and mentor, the Dutchman Jos Hermens, to do the speaking for him.

"He's just not ready," Hermens says. "He's had a difficult time. He's just climbing back. He's lost three-and-a-half weeks of training completely, so there is a shortage there.

"He has had to sneak out to run, because in Ethiopia the orthodox religion says you must do nothing for the first 40 days, and then the mourning continues for another 40 days. People don't really accept that if you go out training you can still be mourning - that, for an athlete, it can help to get your head straight.

"Kenenisa lost two more days last weekend because he went back to the grave, which is outside Addis. They had put the gravestone on and he wanted to see it.

"But coming here will have been good for him - to see the crowd, to realise why sport is important to him, to release all of the emotions. He knows he is not in great shape but he wanted to run here."

Bekele also wants to run at St Galmier in France on 19 and 20 March, to defend his world cross-country titles. "If he does not win there, I will not be surprised," Hermens says. "He only has four weeks to get ready. But in the summer we will see the old Bekele again. I am sure of that."

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