The World of athletics thought it had never seen a broader grin than that of Haile Gebrselassie's in victory. But if anything, the little Ethiopian's smile was even wider in defeat here after a race which will henceforth be one of the first things anyone ever mentions about the eighth World Championships.
In terms of effect upon the landscape of the sport, Gebrselassie's failure to earn better than a bronze here behind Kenya's Charles Kamathi and his team-mate Assefa Mezgebu was an earthquake which followed the tremors set in motion by the women's 100 metres earlier in the week, when Marion Jones saw her four-year unbeaten run come to an end.
The winning sequence of this 28-year-old from Addis Ababa over 10,000 metres may not have comprised as many races as that of the American sprinter's, but it went back further – to 1993, when the newly established world junior champion was beaten into third place at the African Championships.
Since then, the little figure of Gebrselassie – he is 5ft 5in of speed and tenacity – has scampered away from every challenger, assembling a collection of medals that has established him as one of the greatest middle distance runners in the history of the sport, as well as a figure of giddying popularity back home, where he was welcomed by a million people after returning with his second Olympic gold last year.
His achievement in Sydney set him alongside just three other men who had done an Olympic 10,000 metres double in Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek and Lasse Viren. That trio never had the opportunity to add world titles to their collection, but Gebrselassie has made the most of his, winning four in a row until his drop to the bronze standard in what was his first race since Sydney following an Achilles tendon operation.
He made no excuses after the race, although he was clearly hobbling. "I felt quite confident until the last lap," he said. "The Kenyan really surprised me. I was not expecting that to happen. I thought I could win any kind of race. It seems I was wrong." Gebrselassie's manager, Jos Hermens, said afterwards that his runner had visited a medical clinic three days before the race with flu and a temperature of 39C.
Until the final 200 metres of a race which was a tactical battle from the start between the two dominant east African running nations, it seemed that Gebrselassie had covered every move. But when he finally made his own strike for home approaching the final bend, the killing speed which has dispatched the finest opponents the world has had to offer over the last eight years was not there.
Kamathi, the 23-year-old Kenyan policeman who had led the race at 3,000, 7,000 and 9,000 metres, glided past him as they entered the finishing straight, pursued to diminishing effect by Mezgebu, who turned to stare at his mentor as if to reassure himself that he was allowed to go past before continuing with his vain pursuit.
Gebrselassie was clearly startled to see two men stream past him at the point of the race where he is normally on his own. He said the absence of a screen behind the finish line had prevented him from anticipating the final challenge.
Afterwards he confirmed that his plans to run next year's Flora London Marathon would not prevent him from continuing with the 10,000 metres, adding that he would seek another run in Europe this month. Asked if he would be back to seek a fifth world 10,000m title in two years' time, he replied, with another trademark grin: "Definitely. Of course."
With anyone else, you might be tempted to dismiss it as bravado.
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