Kenenisa Bekele in Lausanne, the evening before the World Cross Country Championships (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News 28 March 2003 – Lausanne

Bekele’s all at sea on eve of defence

LausanneIt was an idyllic evening cruise. The kind of trip money cannot buy. The respective presidents of the IAAF and International Olympic Committee faced one another across the table. Guests of Lamine Diack and Jaques Rogge: sponsors, media and former luminaries of the sport, were waited upon by stewards attentive to their every whim at the IAAF Dinner on the eve of the 31st World Cross Country Championships, who stood poised to recharge glasses on a night of convivial celebration.

The comforting lights of Lake Geneva's shore slid by on a warm evening which carried more than a hint of spring. Yet fretting on board, immune to the attractions, was Kenenisa Bekele's contingent, perversely marooned on board when the vessel sailed.

The man who uniquely had captured both long and short course titles a year ago, had failed to realise that a near four-hour voyage was on the menu, along with a canapé of fresh goats' cheese, émince de bouef, three cheeses, chocolate mousse, and coffee.

While those around him tucked in, Bekele, the favourite for whichever race he decides to contest, contented himself by putting to the test the English lessons recently taken, reading statistician Mark Butler's excellent new history of the sport: "The Toughest Race in the World".

Yet the Ethiopian's hopes of penning a further remarkable chapter of his own surely took a dent with his unwanted odyssey.

"When does the programme end?" quizzed his anxious minder, as the courses followed all too leisurely. After the coffee, we ventured Desert had not yet been served. The shore lights receded once again in the black night.

Bekele, well past bed time, even though he is 20, may have been in the figurative soup, yet seemed unperturbed.

Had he been lured on board by Kenyan rivals, one wondered unworthily? Earlier, Bekele had spent an emotional day. Prior to a press conference in front of the world's media, he had made a private visit to Lausanne's Olympic Museum.

In its depths he had seen the tributes and memorablia associated with the feats of his legendary compatriots: Olympic champions Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, and Haile Gebrselassie.

The last of these is a man with whom Bekele is comfortingly familiar. Multiple World and Olympic champion Haile is his mentor. The other two, however, are remote legends, part of the myth and legend of his nation, from an era long before he was born.

"I had only heard of them, but had seen nothing about them," he said, profoundly moved. "I am very proud to have seen this. My dream is to be an Olympic champion, and I hope one day that my picture will be in this museum."

If he was refreshingly open about his track ambitions, the man who is already a legend on the country, after that Dublin double 12 months ago, was less transparent about his hopes for this weekend at the Swiss national equestrian centre some 60 kilometres from Lausanne.

"It's no problem for me when I run," he said bravely in English before an intimidating crowd in the Olympic auditorium.

Pressed as to whether he would attempt both, he said: "I don't know yet which race I will run."

He is entered for both, with the short event this afternoon at 2.30. "If everyone is there, it will be tough competition," he ventured, but there was "no specific person" whom he feared.

He give disturbingly conflicting information about recent activities. Two days earlier his Dutch management team had denied rumours of typhoid, stating that a recent illness was merely food poisoning, which had lost him just a few days' training.

Bekele said it had indeed been typhoid, and had cost him seven days. "One week I rest. Now I am OK."

Close to death? He seems a bit lively for that.

"At this moment I don't know whether I'll run one race or two," he said. "I will talk after the short race with the federation, and then decide."

So did he personally wish to run both? "Nobody expected it last year. This year everyone is asking the question. It's been difficult to concentrate on the race. It is difficult being the favourite...I try to do the same as last year."

Well, last year, the Ethiopian camp kept everyone guessing. In that they succeeded. Now, Bekele is proving a master at continuing the deception tradition.

What rang truest was his assertion that Ethiopia has team tactics ready to counter the Kenyan cohort which is bidding to continue a five-year monopoly of the short course title, and 17 years in command of the long course honours.

"The team has trained in the last months together, as a team. We will have a tactic, and run together," he promised.

And the unscheduled boat trip? That just clouds the waters.

Doug Gillon (The Herald) for IAAF