According to Mo Farah, "Kenenisa Bekele is like the Usain Bolt of distance running".
He has a point. The 5ft 4in Bekele might not be as big a global figure as the 6ft 5in Bolt, but the Ethiopian's dominance of the distance-running world has been every bit as huge as the Jamaican's of the sprint game. Even more so, if anything.
Indeed, while a defeat for the "Lightning Bolt" in the 100m final on day two of the World Championships in the Daegu Stadium, South Korea, tomorrow would register on the upper end of the sporting Richter scale, it would not be something new. Bolt has not lost a 200m race since 2007 but he was beaten in a 100m race by Tyson Gay in Stockholm in August last year, and was eclipsed over the same distance by Asafa Powell in the same city in July 2008.
The fact that both Powell and Gay happen to be injured has significantly reduced the prospect of Bolt suffering what would be the third 100m defeat of his career when the first of his world titles is on the line tomorrow. The 25-year-old, who runs in the heats at 1.45pm today British time, might be some way short of the form that took him to his outlandish world record of 9.58sec in the 2009 World Championship final in Berlin, but he has a proven record of rising to the big occasion. The chances are that he will have too much in the tank for his rivals, although his compatriot Nesta Carter and the Trinidadian Richard Thompson may well push him close.
The greater intrigue in Daegu tomorrow, certainly for the British audience, will come over the near half-hour course of the men's 10,000m final. Unlike Bolt in the 100m, Bekele has been utterly invincible in the 10,000m. At the age of 29, he has yet to be beaten at the 25-lap distance. His record reads: raced 12, won 12.
Since 2003, the little Ethiopian has won two Olympic 10,000m titles, four world 10,000m titles and set two world 10,000m records. If he were to win tomorrow, he would become the first runner to claim five consecutive titles at any distance at the outdoor World Championships.
And yet it is Britain's Farah who lines up as favourite for the gold medal. At 28, the Londoner has established himself as the dominant new force on the distance-running scene this year, since joining the training group run by the former marathon great Alberto Salazar at Portland on the west coast of the United States. Unbeaten in 10 races, Farah tops the world rankings at both 10,000m and 5,000m in 2011 and stands on the threshold of history in South Korea – not just by becoming the first athlete to claim Bekele's scalp at the longer distance.
As Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics, pointed out yesterday: "No British athlete ever in history has won a men's 5,000m or 10,000m on a global level. If a British athlete managed to do that it would be a major achievement."
It would indeed. For all of Britain's proud distance-running heritage, only three athletes from these shores have even won medals in a men's 10,000m final at world level. Mike McLeod won Olympic silver at Los Angeles in 1984, while Jimmy Wilson (1920) and Brendan Foster (1976) both claimed Olympic bronze.
Farah, a distant seventh behind the victorious Bekele in the World Championship 5,000m final in Berlin two years ago, has shown he can win races by any means this summer: with a long run for home, with a gradual wind-up from 1,000m out and with a devastating kick on the last lap. The X-factor is the unknown form of Bekele. He has been out of competitive commission since the Great Edinburgh cross-country race in January last year because of a knee injury.
"I'm ready for the challenge and looking forward to it," Bekele maintained after arriving in Daegu with the Ethiopian team. His manager, Jos Hermens, said: "He is quite fit but it is difficult to say what will happen, because he has not raced." As for Farah, he says: "I don't have a clue what to expect from Bekele. I am just concentrating on myself and making sure I get to the start line healthy."
Thankfully, Jessica Ennis has arrived in South Korea fit and healthy, ahead of the defence of her heptathlon crown, which commences with the 100m hurdles at 2am Monday morning British time.
The Sheffield woman has not been beaten in a heptathlon since 2007. If she were to remain undefeated in Daegu, she would become the first British athlete to retain a World Championship title. One way or another, these promise to be a momentous few days for the budding Brits in South Korea.
Simon Turnbull predicts Britain's medal winners
Mo Farah, 10,000m (tomorrow, 11.30am BST)
Has been invincible all summer. Only Kenenisa Bekele returning close to top form seems likely to pierce Farah's new-found armour.
Jessica Ennis, Heptathlon (first event 2am Monday; last event 12pm Tuesday)
Unbeaten since 2007 and a formidable competitor now. Russian Tatyana Chernova could get close, but probably not close enough.
Phillips Idowu, Triple jump (final 11.05am Sun 4 Sept)
Proven major championship gold medal performer. Clear favourite, with Teddy Tamgho out injured, but American Christian Taylor could be a threat.
Mo Farah, 5,000m (final 11.40am Sun 4 Sept)
On his formidable form of late, Farah will start as the man to beat in the 5,000m.
Dai Greene (400m hurdles, final 1.30pm Thurs)
The Welshman has been one of several impressive performers this summer in what looks an open event. Americans Jeshua Anderson, Angelo Taylor and Kerron Clement the likely threats.
Chris Tomlinson (Long jump, final 11.20am Friday)
Aussie Mitch Watt is the strong favourite but Tomlinson has shown an encouraging level of consistency over the past 12 months.
Jenny Meadows (800m, final 12.15pm Sun 4 Sept)
The Wigan woman could pick up another major championship medal, although the fast-finishing Russian Mariya Savinova and reigning champion Caster Semenya are also in a strong field.Reuse content