11 October, Birmingham, UKHe once dreamt of riding the Tour de France but ended up a road running tour de force. Zersenay Tadese succeeded today where the great Haile Gebrselassie failed and where that other legendary Ethiopian, Kenenisa Bekele, has yet to tread.
Tadese’s victory in the IAAF/EDF Energy World Half Marathon Championships completed a marvellous year for Tadese. Three World Championship medals in one year on three different surfaces is a feat performed previously by only one athlete, Kenya’s Paul Tergat in 1999.
Gebrselassie, World Half Marathon champion in 2001 and four-time World 10,000m champion on the track, gave up trying in cross country after four failed attempts at an individual medal. Bekele, winner of 11 senior World Cross Country titles and four at 10,000m, has yet to make his debut at the half marathon distance and test himself in a world road running championship.
Prior to today, Tadese had finished third in the 2009 World Cross Country Championships, in Amman, Jordan, and runner-up over 10,000m at the 2009 World Athletics Championships, in Berlin. His runaway win this morning, in 59:35, gave him his fourth successive world road running title and he does not intend to stop there.
Having become the first athlete of either sex to win four world road running titles, Tadese was asked whether he would be seeking a fifth in Nanning, China, next year. “I will try,” he said. He will also revisit the marathon distance, having dropped out after 35km in his debut at the distance, in the Flora London Marathon, last April.
Tadese is confident that he can make a success of the marathon. “When I came back to Eritrea after the World Cross Country I was sick for one week,” he said. “I am going to run the marathon again.”
Spotting pockets of Eritrean support out on the course, Tadese is a national hero back home. His wedding to Merhawit Solomon in November 2008, in the capital, Asmara, was attended by 2500 guests and was broadcast live on Eritrean Television.
Given the background of conflict in his home country, Tadese had a relatively trouble-free childhood. One of seven children, he grew up in a family which was neither rich nor poor and which lived some 200km from Asmara, and was less affected by fighting.
Tadese’s first love was cycling. "I dreamed of being a cycling professional with one of the great teams in Europe,” he said. “I would have loved to have ridden in a big race like the Tour de France. I won a number of races, mainly over distances of 30km to 50km.” However, this was no preparation for European races, held over longer distances.
“My success at cycling suggested to some local athletics people that I might have good stamina and they invited me to compete in a race,” Tadese said. “I won that and I did well in my following races, so I carried on running." He began training seriously in 2002 and he considers his background in cycling to be fundamental to his development as an athlete, helping to build his endurance base.
However, Tadese was such an innocent at his maiden international competition that he missed the starting pistol. "I thought it would be like home, when the flag goes down,” he said recalling his appearance in the 2002 World Cross Country Championships, in Dublin. “I didn't know I had to start when a gun went off." He was further handicapped by over-size shoes yet still managed a respectable 30th place.
In 2004, Tadese became the first Eritrean to win an Olympic medal, taking bronze over 10,000m in Athens. Eritrea is one of Africa’s smallest nations, with a population of some four million. In 2005, he won the country’s first global athletics gold, taking his first world title on the only occasion in the championships’ 17-year history when the races were not held over the half marathon distance. Tadese won that day over 20km.
Tadese successfully defended his title in 2007 but not before becoming Eritrea’s first World Cross Country champion with a shock win over Bekele. He then added a third world road running title in 2008. After his World Cross Country victory, Tadese underwent physiological tests which found that he required less oxygen per kilometre than other elite distance runners. A report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggested he was the world's most efficient runner.
On taking his fourth world road title today, Tadese was a convincing winner, stamping his authority just prior to halfway. Dathan Riteznhein, the American who was third, said that winning medals on three different surfaces in one year takes some doing. “I think the biggest test would be cross country,” Ritzenhein said. “Some people just don’t move as well through mud and on grass and hills.”