Friday, March 23, 2007

Past and Future

If you don’t follow the calendar of athletic events, let me give you a quick hint: you want to stay tuned to ROOCHA this coming Saturday. The 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships will be held on March 24th at the Mombasa Golf Club in Mombasa, Kenya. There will be 66 nations, Ethiopia being chief among them, participating in the four races scheduled. All the big guns, including reigning champions Kennenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, will be running for top honors. You will not want to miss this history making event!!

With the exception of the last few years, the Kenyans have practically owned cross country events, until the emergence of Kennenisa Bekele in 2002. Now that the event will be held on Kenya’s home soil, and for the first time ever in Africa, you can be sure that the Kenyans will be out to exact revenge for their past loss on neighbor Ethiopia in front of their home crowd. There is a lot at stake on Saturday as history will be made and ROOCHA will provide up to the minute coverage so be sure to stay tuned. There will also be additional commentary posted on this event, one of the biggest for the year, prior to the races on Saturday.

However, prior to that, I would like to recap some items that went uncovered here during the past month. Many notable accomplishments have taken place within the last month including a World Record run. On Saturday February 17th, Kennenisa Bekele was the star at the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham, England where he
set a World Record in the rarely contested 2000M race. The previous record was held for nine years by the great Haile Gebrselassie.

You will recall that only a week before this race in Birmingham, Kennenisa had to
withdraw from a race in Spain due to injury, so it was great to see at the Birmingham race that he was still in top form. In fact, it is quite astounding for a 10000M specialist to come down to a shorter race and set a world record. 2000M is only one lap (outdoors) more than a mile and Kennenisa’s record setting run was an indication that he has the speed of a miler together with the strength of a 10000M runner- a lethal combination and one surely noted by any of his supposed opponents. One interesting side item here is that athletes such as Kennenisa make a 10+ hour plane trip for a five minute race (the record he set was 4:49.99)

With a new world record in his back pocket, Kennenisa moved on to Stockholm, Sweden for a second world record attempt in a space of four days. This was quite ambitious, even for someone with Kennenisa’s talent. On February 21st, the race was over 3000M and the existing record was set by Daniel Komen of Kenya in 1998. Komen’s 3000M records, both indoors and outdoors, have proven to be too difficult to crack for almost 10 years now. Predictably, Kennenisa
fell short of Komen’s record by six seconds.

Incidentally, you will recall that Daniel Komen burst on the running scene in 1996 and even gave Haile a run for his money for sometime. Komen was angered by being left off the 1996 Kenyan Olympic team. He used the European circuit that followed the Olympics to vent this anger and as a result handed Haile one of his rare defeats in the late 1990’s. Komen also has the unique distinction of being the only man to EVER run 2 miles under eight minutes. This is an
amazing achievement that is quite under-reported considering that Sir Roger Bannister’s first ever sub-four minute mile is considered to be the single greatest athletic achievement in the history of sports. Komen effectively did the same on two back-to-back miles, a feat that has not been repeated!! One has to wonder why this achievement has received such little attention. Could Komen’s skin color have anything to do with it?? Anyway, Haile took the shot from Komen but still held his own while Komen quickly faded away from the running scene (not to be confused with the other Daniel Komen currently racing).

Boy, did I ever digress from my original topic… Coming back to events of last month, another piece of news that came out was the announcement of the elite field for the 111th Boston Marathon on April 16th. The great Ethiopian fans in Boston will be happy to know that five Ethiopians, three men and two women, are among the elite athletes entered for the marathon. Among the five is
Hailu Negussie, the champion in the 2005 race. Boston Marathon is another event which the Kenyan men have had strangle hold of. It will be great if one of our own wins again in Boston and give the local Ethiopians reason to celebrate again, like Tirunesh Dibaba did earlier this year. (Side tirivia- who is the only other Ethiopian man to win the Boston Marathon? Answer at the end.)

Another news item that came across in the past month was regarding Haile Gebrselassie’s plan in the marathon for 2007. Haile had a great year in 2006, except in the London Marathon, and he says he is finally getting results for his effort at this distance. Two things that make me a fan of Haile are illustrated in this
article: his confidence- “I know that it is a matter of luck and time before I break the [Marathon] World Record;” and his patriotism in representing his country – “it is tempting when a chance to represent my country [at the Osaka World Championships] comes up.” You will understand the significance of the latter statement when you realize that many elite marathoners shy away from World Championship marathon in August so that they could preserve their energy to race one of the big city marathons in the fall and earn lots of money. Go Haile go!

The Ethiopian Cross Country trials (to select team for World Cross Country in Mombasa) took place at Jan Meda on February 25th. A surprise winner was the relatively unknown
Tadesse Tola, relegating his more famous compatriots Sileshi Sihine to 3rd place, Tariku Bekele to 6th place and Abebe Dinkessa to 8th place. This goes to show how deep and strong the Ethiopian talent is this year, with great prospect for individual and team victory in Mombasa. I was delighted to learn that almost half of this year’s contingent for Mombasa are talented newcomers who will nicely complement the titans Kennenisa and Tirunesh. On the women’s side, the victor at the Jan Meda trials was the Double M – Meselech Melkamu.

Two days after the Jan Meda race, one half of the “Dueling D’s,” Meseret Defar (who is skipping out on cross country) was half way across the globe in Puerto Rico attempting the reverse of what Kennenisa has been doing in Europe. Meseret decided to try her hands (or feet) at a distance longer than her specialty of 3000M and 5000M. She decided it was time to taste herself
on the roads at a 10km race against the Kenyan-turned-Dutch Lornah Kiplagat who was the reigning champion for the previous three years. Whereas Kennenisa was trying to test his speed at shorter distances, Meseret was looking to check out her strength over a longer distance. Kiplagat won the race for the fouth consecutive year but Meseret came in second with a very good effort.

On March 17, Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya, 20, broke his own one month old Half-Marathon World Record by a huge 18 seconds at the CPC Half-Marathon in Hague, Netherlands. You will recall that Wanjiru set his previous record in early February by
bettering the time Haile recorded in January 2006 in Phoenix Arizona. I am sure Haile’s previous vow to reclaim his record remains in tact.

All the remaining recent news is regarding World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa on Saturday. As I stated at the beginning, I will do a separate piece on that topic sometime tomorrow. If you are interested, I will also point you to a source where you can watch all the cross country races live from Mombasa for a nominal fee. Stay tuned!

Q: who is the only other Ethiopian (other than 2005 champ Hailu Negussie) to win the Boston Marathon?
Abebe Mekonnen in 1989. Abebe Bikila ran in the 1963 Boston Marathon but he finished in 5th place. On the women’s side, Fatuma Roba won three consecutive years between 1997-1999.

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