Ethiopian great sets his sights on 2012

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The Independent Online

Even at the age of 37, and with the most comprehensively glittering curriculum vitae in distance running history, Haile Gebrselassie is still managing to break new ground. Yesterday it was Newcastle. Next it will be New York. Then there is the new challenge of an Olympic marathon, back on British soil in 2012.

If the reaction of the crowds massed at the finish of the Bupa Great North Run at South Shields yesterday is anything to go by – and indeed, the reaction of such all-time running greats as Sir Chris Chataway and Brendan Foster – there would probably be no more popular winner of Olympic gold in the British capital the year after next than the ever-smiling Ethiopian known as "The Little Emperor".

On his debut run in the world's biggest half-marathon, ten years after he first agreed to tread the 13.1-mile route from Newcastle to the North Sea coast, Gebrselassie prevailed in imperious fashion, breaking clear at half-way and turning the elite men's race into a demonstration of the class that has earned him 27 world records and two Olympic 10,000m track golds. He crossed the finish line in 59min 33sec, 1 min 50sec clear of his closest pursuer in the record 39,000-strong field, Kiplimo Kimutai of Kenya.

For Foster, founder of the Tyneside race, there could have been no more fitting winner of the 30th Great North Run than the greatest distance runner of all time. The 1976 Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist presented a commemorative plaque to Gebrselassie while the Red Arrows performed a double fly-past in honour of the winner.

There was also a special tribute from the remarkable Sir Chris, who produced a truly great North Run on his own yesterday – in his 80th year, beating 80 per cent of the field with a time of 1 hour 51min 9sec, 51 seconds inside his target. "I have huge admiration for Haile," the former 5,000m world record holder and Conservative government minister said. "In Ethiopia, his standing is somewhere between David Beckham and Sir Winston Churchill, just amazing."

Gebrselassie himself reflected: "The Great North Run is a great race and it is special to win it for the first time. There is still more that I want to achieve – the Olympic marathon back here on the streets of London in 2012, and maybe even the next Olympics after that."

The next new frontier for Gebrselassie will the ING New York City Marathon on 7 November, in which Mara Yamauchi will also be making her first appearance. The Oxford woman did not enjoy the best of times yesterday, finishing fifth in the elite women's section, in 70min 39sec, 1min 50sec behind the victorious Berhane Adere of Ethiopia.

There were domestic wins in wheelchair races – for David Weir (44:49) and Shelley Woods (52:39) – but perhaps the most impressive performance by a British Great North Runner yesterday came from the 79-year-old Sir Chris. "It will be my last half-marathon," he announced afterwards. "In future I shall be concentrating on the only sport in which I'm improving – bridge."