Athletics: Bekele walks with big beasts to claim lion's share of gold

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Looking down from the main stand in Nagai Stadium at 1.30am local time yesterday, as the last man standing in the media tribune, a familiar figure in a yellow and blue vest could be seen strolling down the home straight, accompanied by a World Championship official. It was Carolina Kluft, four hours after completing her European record victory in the heptathlon, easing the lactic acid out of her system and working up the ability to provide a sample for the doping control officer. As she passed the finish line, she raised both arms in mock celebration. It was a surreal sight to behold in an otherwise deserted arena.

More was to follow. After rounding the bend, Kluft jogged to the exact centre of the in-field and lay spreadeagled on her back. The Japanese official did the same. "I told her, 'Look at the stars'," Kluft confided later yesterday. The drug tester ought to have looked to her right instead. She would have seen the biggest star in the track and field firmament.

The stellar Swede sprang to her feet and launched into a series of somersaults, cartwheels and forward rolls – despite her two-day, seven-event exertion, looking every bit as nimble as Olga Korbut in her Munich Olympics prime. Then she performed three star-jumps and slowly walked away in the direction of the doping control room.

Kluft remains the breath of fresh air she was when she first breezed into the senior international arena. She is still unbeaten in 19 heptathlons stretching back to her junior days six years and one month ago.

Kenenisa Bekele also remains a great untouchable – in his specialist event, at any rate. Some 20 hours after the Swedish queen of the sport had departed, it was the turn of the Ethiopian king of distance running to put his unblemished record on the line. Like Kluft before him, Bekele duly preserved them both. Only just.

As the slow-burning men's 10,000 metres final flared up into red-hot crescendo, Bekele twice looked a beaten man. With 600 metres to go, he dropped five metres behind his fellow-countryman Sileshi Sihine and Martin Mathathi, of Kenya. By the bell he had clawed his way back to their heels but, with 200 metres left, Sihine was away in front and Bekele was five metres down again. Down but not beaten, it transpired.

From somewhere in his diminutive frame, Bekele found the power to come back. He surged past Sihine around the bend and sprinted to his most unlikely victory in 27min 05.90sec. Sihine crossed the line 3.3sec behind, the peeved look of the perpetual bridesmaid etched on his face. His name might mean "Victory" in Amharic, but this was the third global 10,000m final in succession (following the 2004 Olympics and and 2005 World Championship) in which Sihine has finished runner-up to his team-mate.

For Bekele, at 25, it was a third successive world title at the distance – matching the hat-trick the 24-year-old Kluft has achieved. Bekele might have relinquished his five-year unbeaten record at cross-country in March – succumbing to the heat and humidity at the world championships in Mombasa and stepping off the course with 800m remaining – but he has yet to lose a 10,000m race. Yesterday's was his eighth in four years, and by far his most dramatic.

It was reminiscent of Haile Gebrselassie's refusal to accept defeat in his epic Olympic 10,000m duel with his Kenyan rival Paul Tergat. "Yes, I was worried when I dropped behind," Bekele confessed. "The way the pace kept changing took a lot out of me."

There might not be very much of the little man from Addis Ababa – just 5ft 4in of him – but King Kenny is made of the sternest stuff. This is a young man, after all, who, in pursuing his passion for reading life stories, has worked his way through David Beckham's autobiography. "It's my favourite," he said.

Almost as impressively, he has also survived an encounter with a lioness. "I was training in the Entoto Hills outside Addis Ababa with my brother, Tariku, four months ago and I saw a lioness and her cub about 100m away," Bekele recalled. "We stopped abruptly, let them quietly return to the forest, and then proceeded to turn away.

"I was scared a bit at the time. I had heard stories that a lioness would get angry if she thought anything would hurt her cub. When we asked shepherds whether lions existed in the area, they said the forests did not have any lions, only cheetahs. I can still hardly believe what happened."

Bekele has been painfully touched by real tragedy in his young life. Back in January 2002, he was training in the same hills on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital when his 18-year-old fiancée, Alem Techale, collapsed and died of a heart attack. She was the reigning world youth 1500m champion at the time. "She is always with me in my heart," the indomitable man of the 10,000m said.