Tsegay Kebede is the coming man of the marathon. In the gruelling heat and humidity of Beijing last August he finished like a sprinter in the Olympic men's race, surging past his Ethiopian team-mate Deriba Merga 200 metres from the line on the Bird's Nest track to take the bronze. Had he launched his attack from the halfway mark, this mighty atom of a young Ethiopian – all 5ft 2in of him – might have overtaken Sammy Wanjiru for the gold.
As it is, Kebede has continued to make up ground on Kenya's Olympic champion. In the Fukuoka International Marathon in Japan in December he smashed Wanjiru's course record, improving his own personal best to 2hr 06min 10sec. In the Flora London Marathon today he lines up with Wanjiru in a stellar elite men's field assembled with the intention of chasing the world-record figures – 2:03:59 – held by the Ethiopian known as "the Little Emperor", the imperious 5ft 4in Haile Gebrselassie. Should Kebede beat the clock, and beat Wanjiru across the finish line to victory on The Mall, he would add £122,000 to his appearance fee.
Victory alone would be worth a bonus of £37,000, and a sub-2:06 clocking a further £50,000 – riches of which the fifth-born of 13 children could not have dreamed when he collected firewood for 20 birr [£1.20] a day to help himself and his family survive in rural Gerar Ber, 26 miles north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
"I would buy bread and some tea and would have only one meal a day," Kebede reflected as he gratefully savoured the generous London Marathon hospitality in the Tower Hotel. "After that, I had nothing left in my pocket. I had to wake up the following morning to go back to work in order to survive. If I didn't, there would be no food.
"Sometimes, when I think back on how I used to survive with my family, it brings a tear to my eye. I thank God every day that I have the opportunity to help my family out of poverty. It is almost like a dream that I used to live like that. Now, from the marathon, I have sent money home for my parents, brothers and sisters, to build a house. I have also bought them cattle so they can be self-sufficient. That is my aim – for them to be able to provide for themselves."
Kebede earned more than £100,000 in prize money last year but his story is not just one of rags to riches. At 22, the same age as Wanjiru, he is one of the young-gun marathon runners making a mark in what has been traditionally an older man's game; Gebrselassie, who improved his own world record in Berlin last September, turned 36 three weeks ago. It was only two years ago that Kebede made his debut at the 26.2-mile marathon distance, winning the race held annually in Addis Ababa in honour of Abebe Bikila, the man who launched the African distance-running revolution with his bare-footed victory in the Olympic marathon in Rome in 1960. It was a race that might never have been for the latest star in the Ethiopian firmament. A week beforehand, Kebede survived a potentially fatal bus crash on the outskirts of Addis.
He was on his way to training in Etonto as part of a squad of runners coached by Geteneh Tessema – the husband of Gete Wami, Paula Radcliffe's long-time rival – when the brakes failed on the vehicle that was carrying them. It toppled over a small cliff. "We all screamed for help but we were all crushed," Kebede said, casting his mind back to that June day in 2007. "All the time I was praying, 'God, I came to Addis to change the life of my family. Are you going to end my life here? Please save my life.' My prayers were answered. I thought I would die for those few minutes but I think I was given another life."
Having made the most of his new lease of life, the one-time firewood gatherer is one of the elite marathon men from whom Dave Bedford, the race director of the Marathon, expects "real sparks" today. As well as Kebede and Wanjiru, the 36,000-strong field includes Olympic silver medallist Jaouad Gharib, of Morocco, world champion Luke Kibet, of Kenya, and the 2007 world cross-country champion Zersenay Tadese, of Eritrea, who will be making his marathon debut.
The only major absentee – apart from three-time London winner Martin Lel, who withdrew injured last night – is Gebrselassie, and he could find himself a loser before Big Ben strikes midday. Bedford has instructed the pacemakers to reach halfway in 61min 50sec and to continue at world-record schedule until 20 miles. That would give whoever might last the pace six miles in which to beat the clock and Gebrselassie's world record. "We're daring to think, 'Can we get anyone under 2hr 04min here?'" Bedford said.
If Kebede manages to do so by a margin of two seconds, his name will enter the record books in place of the national icon he has yet to meet formally. Asked what Gebrselassie said to him about his bronze-medal run in Beijing, the young Ethiopian replied: "I don't know him. We do not train together. Sometimes I see him and we both say, 'Hi,' but we have not been formally introduced. The opportunity to meet him has not yet arisen."
Still, the hand of opportunity beckons Kebede in England's capital city today. Last autumn he ran away from the field in the Great North Run on Tyneside, clocking 59min 54sec for the half-marathon distance. If he can do the same in London, the streets will be paved with gold for the rags-to-riches marathon man.
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