Sunday, August 3, 2008

Olympic Countdown #7

Sydney, Monday 25 September 2000. Gebrselassie and Tergat thrill over 10,000m

This night of athletics contained many great moments – 9 finals, among them Cathy Freeman winning the 400m; Michael Johnson also in the 400m; Jonathan Edwards making up for his loss in Atlanta by winning the triple jump; and Dragila and Grigorieva battling for the inaugural Olympic women’s pole vault – but for me the one ‘I wish I was there for event’ was the last one of the night – the 10,000m. And for athletics nuts like me, it was great because of the history involved.

In the 1990s and 2000s distance running at major track meets around Europe morphed into a virtual team event consisting of runners from Kenya versus those from Ethiopia – split by the occasional Moroccan. From the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Games to the 2007 Osaka World Championships, out of the 36 medals on offer for the 10,000m in Olympics and World Championships all but 5 went to athletes from Ethiopia and Kenya.

Since the 1996 Atlanta Games only 1 non-Kenyan or Ethiopian has medalled in the event (and he was from Eritrea which borders Ethiopia). (By the way this isn’t likely to change in Beijing: 12 of the top 13 runners this year over 10,000m are from Ethiopia and Kenya – the exception? From Eritrea).

Of these two great long-distance running nations the champion of each was the almighty Haile Gebrselassie in the green corner for Ethiopia, and Paul Tergat in the red corner for Kenya. They were the two greatest distance runners during a period of great distance runners.

Tergat made his name as a cross-country runner – he won the world championship 5 years running from 1995 when the race was universally regarded as the most difficult distance race to win, as athletes from the 1500m through to the marathon would compete.

Gebrselassie had been an outstanding junior runner, and came to prominence when at the age of 20 he won Gold in the 10,000m and Silver in the 5,000m at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. The following year he broke the world record in both events.

In the 1995 World Championships he was a strong favourite in both, but chose to run only the 10,000m. He won, with Tergat coming third in his first major track competition.

Next year at the Athens Olympics, Gebrselassie, due to the hardness of the track, decided again to only run in the 10,000m. The race was one for the ages. At the 8000m mark, Tergat unleashed a withering blast and ran the next 800m in 2:02. Afterwards the only one still with him was Gebrselassie. He stuck behind Tergat for the next 2 laps before unleashing his famous kick with 400m to go. He ran the last lap in 57sec and set an Olympic record. Tergat was 2nd, 0.83sec behind.

In the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Gebrselassie began his kick with 500m to go. This time he ran the last lap in 56 secs. Tergat came 2nd, 1.04sec behind.

In the 1999 World Championships in Seville, the result: Gold, Gebrselassie, Silver, Tergat. This time the difference was 1.29sec.

Two weeks before the Sydney Olympics, the met at the famed “Weltklasse” Competition in Zurich over 5,000m. The result? Gebrselassie 1st, Tergat 2nd.

Now this event is also special for me because I can remember exactly where I was when I saw it. I was in the souvenir shop at the Olympic Park. My wife and I had not been able to get tickets for the athletics that night and so had spent the day watching the Olympic tennis tournament. Afterwards we had gone to one of the grassed areas in the Park and watched Freeman win her race. We decided to get some souvenirs before heading home. Now the souvenir shop is perhaps more correctly termed a warehouse – it was huge, and there were TV screen all around showing the events. I spent most of the time glued to the screen (in between quickly trying on a variety of T-shirts and deciding which coffee mug to buy).

The race was all that everyone who loves athletics and had followed these two could hope.

The pace was generally even and honest (i.e not too slow, not stupidly fast). Gebrselassie and Tergat tracked each other. With seven laps to go a Kenyan, John Korir, put in a surge that left the leading pack in a single file of five. The order was Kenya, Ethiopia (Gebrselassie), Kenya (Tergat), Ethiopia, Kenya. And while Kenya had the advantage of numbers, they were unable to drop Gebrselassie and with a lap to go all athletics' fans knew what to expect; and it looked lost for Tergat.

At the bell the other Ethiopian, Mezegebu, came up to Tergat’s side and boxed him in so he was unable to pass Gebrselassie. Down the back straight while everyone waited for Gebrselassie’s final kick, Tergat dropped back and went out to the third lane and did something unexpected. Drawing no doubt on the agony of silver in 96, 97 and 99, he unleashed an amazing kick. The cross-country runner not known for his ability to accelerate seemed to be beating Gebrselassie at his own game.

At this point in the souvenir shop I was shouting encouragement to him (he’d always been a favourite of mine). And as it was the Olympics, others in the shop got involved as well, cheering them on as they rounded the final bend.

With 90m to go it was between Tergat and his great rival, the others had been dropped – fittingly it would be down to the two champions.

At this point Gebrselassie was expected to zoom past, for he had ever been the better at sprinting. But no. Tergat kept the lead and looked strong. In vain Gebrselassie tried to pass him.

With 40m to go it seems as though Tergat has Gebrselassie’s measure. This time he’ll get there. I’m screaming at the screen GO, GO, GO!!!!

With 10 metres Gebrselassie amazingly draws level but both appear to be completely spent. And yet the mighty Ethiopian is able to find something more, that tiny miniscule ounce of something that makes the difference; he edges past.

As Tergat lunges for the line, his legs begin to buckle as he realises, as all athletes do at such moments, that he won’t be able to hold him off. He knows a metre from the line that his effort hasn’t been enough. The final lap has been run in 56.5secs.

Gold, Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia, 27:18.20; Silver, Paul Tergat, Kenya, 27:18.29.

Tergat is denied this time by a mere 9 hundredths of a second (0.09secs), and for the only time in Olympic history the margin in the Men’s 10,000m is closer than that of the Men’s 100m.

After the Games, both men would take up running the Marathon. In September 2003, Tergat set a world record in the event of 2hrs 4min 55 seconds. It would stand for 4 years before being broken by 29 secs. The man who broke it? Haile Gebrselassie.

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