Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Three Kings of Ethiopia

The Olympic Series: A glance back at history in the shadows of London 2012

Nineteen-sixty was a different time. There was no Euro-crisis as there was no Euro-zone. Europe was divided in two rather than spiralling as one. It had been 14 years since Winston Churchill had first described “the Iron Curtain”, yet the wall had not been built, let alone knocked down. Civil rights was merely a concept let alone a movement in full-motion, as Martin Luther King had yet to articulate his dream.

The world congregated on one of its oldest and most famous cities, Rome, for the global Games that were not yet truly global. They were the Games of the XVII Olympiad yet across the previous 16; no black African had won Olympic gold. Despite the extraordinary feats of African-American Jessie Owens in 1936, the track events were still dominated by Anglo-Saxons. In Rome, the status quo remained. An Italian, Livio Berruti, won the men’s 200m in front of his adoring countrymen. The men’s 800, 1500, and 5000m were all incredibly claimed by Antipodes. Peter Snell of New Zealand and Australia’s Herb Elliot both broke Olympic records, with Elliot setting a new world mark for the 1500m.

But on September 10, 1960 the world of distance running changed forever when the first black African claimed Olympic gold. An Ethiopian won the Olympic Marathon as the sun set on Rome, and he did it barefoot.

ABEBE Bikila was born the day Juan Carlos Zabala, of Argentina, became the first South American to win an Olympic marathon in Los Angeles 1932. Bikila’s childhood was framed by turmoil in northern African. Ethiopia, one of the largest landlocked nations on earth was occupied by Italy through the war before becoming a charter member of the UN. Despite its modernization under the leadership of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia had anything but peaceful borders.

The son of a shepherd, Bikila spent his formative years walking and running several miles a day around the tiny village of Jato chasing his father’s herds. At 19 he joined the Imperial Bodyguard, the elite corps entrusted with the protection of Emperor. During his time in the capital, Addis Ababa, Bikila was spotted by Major Onni Niskanen, a Finnish-born Swede who was employed as the Guards sports trainer. In the lead-up to Melbourne, 1956, Niskanen had helped train the first Ethiopian athletes to ever compete at an Olympic Games. In Bikila, he had "seen this soldier running from Sululta to Addis and back every day, and hit upon the idea of letting him try the marathon." Sululta to Addis Ababa was a 20km journey.

In two marathons in the lead-up to Rome, Bikila ran 2 hours 39 minutes 50 seconds and 2:21.23 to win the Olympic trial. The second was faster than the immortal Emil Zatopek’s eight-year-old Olympic record.

In Rome, Bikila was provided with shoes from the Games sponsors but they did not fit comfortably on his feet. He had trained barefoot in Addis and elected to run the 42km on the cobbled streets without shoes. You could not script such an insane notion, yet Bikila undertook the task without thinking. Moroccan, Rhadi Ben Abdesselam was touted as a pre-race favourite and the man to make history. Niskanen told Bikila to look for Abdesselam wearing bib 26. At the 20km mark the Ethiopian was running alongside Abdesselam in the lead, but the Moroccan was wearing another race bib, 185. Bikila kept the pace up looking for athlete 26, and pressed clear of Abdesselam in the last kilometer to create history. Not only had Bikila become the first Sub-Saharan African to win Olympic gold, he had won the 14th Olympic marathon in world record time. Bikila’s effort of 2:15.16.2 obliterated Zatopek’s Helsinki Olympic mark and was a second quicker than Sergei Popov’s two-year-old world record. The shock to the world was that no one, outside Niskanen, had ever heard of Bikila before that day.

The legend was still to grow. He had been convinced by a Japanese shoe manufacturer, Kihachiro Onitsuka, that shoes could help him in Tokyo. But footwear was the least of his issues when 40 days out from the 1964 Games Bikila was hospitalized with acute appendicitis. Without complications from the surgery Bikila was fine to run in Tokyo. He smashed his own Olympic record and reclaimed the world record, becoming the first Olympic marathoner to defend his crown winning in 2:12.11.2. Bikila and East German Waldemar Cierpinski remain the only two men in history to have won two Olympic marathons. Extraordinarily, Bikila could have won a third. He ran in Mexico City in 1968 but withdrew at the 17km mark. It is believed he had broken a bone in his foot during training. Bikila’s long-time training partner, Mamo Wolde won gold in 2:20.26, but stated it would have been Bikila’s title had he not been injured.

And thus began the dominance of African distance running. It was a legacy left by Bikila. Unfortunately he would not see his legacy reach its zenith. In 1969, whilst driving through civil unrest in Addis he crashed his Volkswagen, a gift he had received from the Emperor. The crash left Bikila a paraplegic. Four years later, aged 41, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The day of his funeral was declared a national day of mourning by the Emperor, who was one of 75,000 in attendance. The Stadium in Addis now bears Bikila’s name. But his legacy is so much more, as it lives on in Ethiopian dominance of Olympic distance events.

BY Atlanta 1996 middle distance running was the territory of northern Africans. Ethiopians, Kenyans, Moroccans, and Tunisians had all won Olympic gold over distances of 800m and above. Atlanta was the high water mark. The first black South African gold medalist ever, Josia Thugwane, would win the men’s marathon. Burundi would produce it’s only ever gold medalist with VĂ©nuste Niyongabo winning the men’s 5000m, whilst an Algerian, Noureddine Morceli, would win the men’s 1500m.

Ethiopia had only two male Olympic champions since Bikila. Wolde could not defend his title from Mexico City winning bronze in the Munich marathon in 1972. Miruts Yifter claimed a famous 5000m, 10000m double in Moscow 1980, becoming the first non-European to achieve the feat and joining some of the greatest ever in doing so.

On a hot, sultry night in Atlanta, Ethiopia had its best chance at producing another, when a dual world champion and dual world record holder, a man named after an Emperor no less, lined up in the men’s 10000m.

HAILE Gebrselassie was only six months old when Bikila died in 1973. But like Bikila he grew up on a farm and ran more than 10km to and from school daily. Gebrselassie’s style was not the military precision of Bikila. His gait was all his own, with crooked shoulders and flailing arms a legacy left from running with school books each day. But junior and senior world titles and two astonishing world records in 1995 made him the favourite in Atlanta.

Through 8000m there was a lead group of six. The pace was hotter than the air they were breathing, and with five laps to go Kenyan Paul Tergat made a decisive move that only Gebrselassie could follow. The tall Kenyan was a picture of concentration. Gebrselassie was tucked in so close that from face on he could not be seen behind Tergat’s frame. The Kenyan’s 21st lap of 25 was a blistering 60.55 400m split to burst the race open. Then a trio of 62-second laps got both men to the bell together. Tergat’s face was strained with 450m to go. His burst had not only burnt most of his opponents, but had wounded himself. Gebrselassie peeled out from his hiding place, gritted his teeth, his eyes rolled left without turning his head to survey Tergat’s face, before putting his head down and flying away. The Ethiopian’s last lap was run in 57.49 to beat the gallant Kenyan by five metres in a new Olympic record. Bikila had another disciple. Gebrselassie had started a journey to become the greatest of them all.

Four years on, with two more world titles to his name, Gebrselassie lined up alongside Tergat again in Sydney for arguably the best 10000m in Olympic history. The race was run very differently to Atlanta. A far cooler September night meant for a far more tactical affair. As they came to the bell there were five left in the mix, two Ethiopians, Gebrselassie and Assefa Mezgebu, and three Kenyans, Tergat, Patrick Ivuti, and John Korir. Gebrselessie was tracking the leader again but this time it was Korir, with Tergat lying fourth at the bell. No one made a move until 250m from home when Tergat, as if playing hopscotch, found a path clear and sped away. Gebrselassie tracked him but looked unlikely to head him as they raced to the line. The Ethiopian puffed his diminutive chest at the line to defeat Tergat yet again and emulate Bikila with back-to-back Olympic crowns.

Like Bikila, Gebrselassie found a third consecutive title a bridge too far. Indeed no man had ever won three consecutive Olympic track events when Gebrselassie lined up in Athens. He would finish fifth, however, behind countrymen Sileshi Sihine and the heir to his 10000m throne, Kenenisa Bekele.

THE mantle had already all but been passed. Bekele, nine years Haile’s junior, had thrice beaten Gebrselassie in 2003 over 10000m, including at the Paris World Championships, denying him a fifth world title in the process. In June of 2004 Bekele broke Gebrselassie’s world record that had stood since 1998. Athens was Bekele’s coronation. Gebrselassie was dropped with 2km to go in the final leaving Bekele, Sihine, and Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese to fight for the medals. Tadese, having set the early pace lost contact with the Ethiopian pair and with 500m to run Sihine and Bekele ran side-by-side. With 400m to run the gap was nearly 10m. Bekele put in a breathtaking acceleration to assert his authority. His last lap was astonishing. He ran a split of 53.02, four seconds quicker than Gebrselassie’s final lap in Atlanta, and good enough to set a new Olympic record of 27:05.11. The mantle had not so much been passed, as it was emphatically claimed.

In many ways Bekele’s style was the antithesis of Gebrselassie, and the contrast is evident in the final laps of both men from Atlanta and Athens. Gebrselassie was a winner. He did what he had to on each occasion, in each race circumstance to cross the line first. His ungainly, flailing arms were a trademark, and at maximum effort his mouth was wide open, teeth gritted together, neck strained, head still, eyes were bulging and darting to either side watching, hoping to see that he was doing enough to hold off his challengers.

Bekele by comparison is a Rolls Royce. His motion is poetry. Upper body still, shoulders relaxed, arms working in sync with his legs. His burst of acceleration comes from an incredible turnover in his legs. They spin over the ground like the Road-Runner speeding away from Wile E. Coyote. Bekele’s last lap in Athens saw no strain on his face. His eyes were half closed, his faced as relaxed as could be. As if in meditative state he focussed on his breathing and sprinted clear of Sihine with the energy of a 400m runner, not a man who was covering 10km.

Bekele raised the bar. He almost matched Yifter in 2004 by winning the 5000m as well, save for Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj who was invincible in Athens. Bekele is the greatest cross country runner to have lived, having won 11 World titles across the country-sides of Dublin, Lausanne, Brussels, Saint-Galmier, Fukuoka, and Edinburgh. All of this in the face of tragedy, having lost his fiancé Alem Techale in 2005, when she died of a heart attack whilst on a training run with Bekele.

Like Gebrselassie, he added two world titles in between 2004 and 2008. Beijing would be his coup de grace. The 10000m was tight affair through 9km. Indeed, 20 men ran under 28 minutes. But Bekele again destroyed his opponents with another frightening 53-second final lap. He smashed his own Olympic record, running 27:01.17. Six days later he did match Yifter, atoning for his last gasp defeat in Athens. Bekele won a third Olympic Gold in 12:57.82, becoming the first man to break 13 minutes in a 5000m Olympic final. In Berlin a year later he did the double again at the World Championships. Although six had achieved the feat at Olympic level, it had never been achieved at the Worlds before. Both of these efforts were lost as the Jamaican phenomenon Usain Bolt stole the headlines, and the world’s attention in both Beijing and Berlin. But even Bolt admitted the quiet, unassuming Bekele did not get the credit he deserves.

Bekele tried for a fifth consecutive world 10000m title in Daegu but came up shorter than Gebrselassie, dropping out with 10 laps remaining of a race that was stolen by another Ethiopian, little-known Ibrahim Jeilan.

London will play witness to Bekele’s attempt to do what Gebrselassie and Bikila could not, and that is win Olympic Gold in the same event at three games. If he fails, it will not be such a disappointment, as it would unfair to split this trio. Three generations of greats. Bikila broke new, unconquered, ground. Gebrselassie made that ground his own, Bekele raised the ground to new levels. Three distance running legends. Three kings of Ethiopia.

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