Approaching 9.35pm in the Letzigrund Stadion on Friday night, Kenenisa Bekele picked up the pace at the front of the field with four laps remaining in the men's 5,000m at the Weltklasse meeting. He pulled clear with seemingly effortless ease, much to the delight of the crowd jammed into the compact Swiss arena.
By the time the bell sounded, they had whipped themselves into a state of frenzy, shouting, screaming and banging their palms on the metal advertising hoardings skirting the track. In Mexican Wave fashion, they followed the Ethiopian's progress around the last lap by raising both arms and bowing like 26,000 unworthy Wayne Campbells paying homage to an awesome Alice Cooper.
They know a class act when they see one in Zurich, and no one in the opening show on the post-Olympic European track-and-field circuit got the locals going quite like the breathtaking Bekele. Not even the headlining Usain Bolt, who performed all of his gallery-playing moves either side of coasting to victory in the men's 100m in 9.83sec. Or the 18-year-old Kenyan phenomenon Pamela Jelimo, who crossed the line in the women's 800m in 1min 54.01sec, a time that has been bettered only by the great Czech hulk of a woman Jarmila Kratochvilova (1:53.28) and the Russian Nadezhda Olizarenko (1:53.43).
No, Bekele was the show- stealer in the penultimate meeting of the season's Golden League programme. And with good reason. Just six days previously he had been on the track in the Bird's Nest in Beijing, running away from the field in the men's 5,000m final.
In doing so, he became only the fifth man to complete an Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m double, following in the spike marks of Hannes Kolehmainen, Emil Zatopek, Vladimir Kuts and his fellow countryman Miruts Yifter – or "Yifter the Shifter," as David Coleman rechristened the balding Ethiopian when he took his leave of Steve Ovett on the final scorching lap of the 5,000m at the Gateshead Games in 1977.
Quite apart from his Olympian exertions in China, before arriving in Zurich in the early hoursof Thursday Bekele had spent most of Wednesday back home in Addis Ababa receiving the kind of welcome that even Jamaica will struggle to match when the Lightning Bolt returns home with his three gold medals a week tomorrow. "The prime minister and the president were at the airport to meet myself and the rest of the Ethiopian team," Bekele said. "On the road from the airport and in the main square in Addis there were so many people to greet us. One million,at least.
"It was an 11-hour flight from Beijing to Addis on Wednesday and then seven hours from Addis to here overnight, arriving Thursday morning. I am feeling a little bit tired but I am happy to win here and run the fastest time in the world this year [12min 50.18sec]. I have one race left now. I will concentrate on winning and not on the time."
That race is the 3,000m in the Aviva British Grand Prix at Gateshead this afternoon. The organisers might not have the Lightning Bolt on the bill but they have the 5ft 4in Bekele, as giant a phenomenon in the distance-running world as the 6ft 5in Jamaican has become in the sprinting fraternity. At 26, Bekele has put the 5,000m and 10,000m world records beyond the reach of his contemporaries, and like Bolt he has three Olympic gold medals in his possession now, having pocketed the 10,000m in Athens four years ago.
"It does not upset me that Bolt is taking the spotlight," he insisted. "Like everyone else, I enjoyed watching his performances in Beijing. They were very special. He broke three world records and I think nobody is going to do this again. He is a very special athlete."
So, for that matter, is Bekele. He has yet to losea 10,000m race. He haswon the main race at the World Cross Country Championships on a record six occasions. With his smooth, gliding gait he covers the ground on track, road and country with the ease of a Sunday-morning club runner.
In his private life, too, Bekele has found a serenity. In January 2005 he was training in woods outside Addis Ababa with his fiancée, Alem Techale, when she collapsed and died in his arms. In November last year he was married to Danawit Gebregziabher, an Ethiopian film actress. "For me right now, life is good," the diminutive king of distance running reflected.Reuse content