Saturday, May 26, 2007

Back to the Familiar

In a few hours, Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie will be running in the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games (aka Thales FBK Games, named for "The Flying Housewife") in Hengelo, Netherlands. Kenenisa will be running the 2 mile race, originally billed as a world record attempt, and Haile will be doing the 10000M race. Both will be in familiar territory, but only as far as venue is concerned. It is unlikely that either one will come anywhere close to world record setting form they displayed in past years at this very same meet. In fact, I just hope that they will avoid the disaster they met in their most recent outings in Mombasa and London.

I suspect both Kenenisa and Haile have chosen to compete in Hengelo because it is a familiar place to both. Haile has set three world records in Hengelo: 5000M record in 1994, and two 10000M records in 1995 and 1998. Kenenisa broke the 5000M record in Hengelo in 2004. However, both have met some rough roads in recent competition and their performance in Hengelo will be quite telling as to how they will fare in upcoming competitions for the rest of 2007.

Recent news on Kenenisa regarding his ongoing difficulties following the disaster in Mombasa has been troubling, to say the least. Although the story is carried by Kenyan media (with vested interest in seeing Kenenisa's demise), what is reported is most shocking. Other reports state that Kenenisa suffered knee injury in Mombasa, which the Ethiopian Athletic Federation has been concerned about. Kenenisa has faced adversity in the past, including the unexpected loss of his fiancee, and he has managed to rise back to the top. I hope that Hengelo (and Pre Classic two weeks later) will put him back on the right track towards 2007 World Chamionships in Osaka and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

As for Haile, his appearance in Hengelo is most puzzling. He had said that his days of track running have come to an end following the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. He was at last concentrating on the Marathon which he said was his ultimate goal through all his years of running. Haile had a successful 2006 marathon season but he had to drop out of the London Marathon last month where he had a high expectation of winning against a strong field that was assembled. Unfortunately, Haile had to drop out after 30 kilometers.

In an interview that I heard several days after London's race, Haile said he encountered sudden difficulty in breathing, which his doctors have later on told him was due to pollen allergy. The unusual warm weather in London had resulted in high level of pollen in the air. Haile said he was very confident of winning as he passed the 25 km mark but his race was unexpectedly over 15 minutes later. Third time was definitely not a charm for Haile in London. Even before the race, I was disappointed to read the defending champion openly stating that he does not fear Haile and that Haile's aura is gone.

Immediately after the news of Haile's DNF in London, many Ethiopians started commenting on internet discussion boards calling on him to gracefully retire from running. These were similar remarks heard after Haile's shocking loss at the 2001 World Championship 10000M race in Edmonton, Canada. This time, however, even Haile's manager Jos Hermens admitted that Haile himself has for the first time talked about retiring after his DNF in London.

Just before this year's London Marathon, Haile had confidently talked about his desire to run until the 2012 London Olympics. Only few days later there was talk of retirement. Haile said that people that he respects have even come to him privately to suggest retirement but it looks his retirement is still far off. Haile says that some will be disappointed if he does not retire and others will be disappointed if he does retire. I just hope that he will get a farewell tour he so deserves when it is time to retire, rather than be forced to walk away with injury or series of embarrassing defeats.

In light of the above, it is quite concerning that Haile has decided to return to track racing in attempts of recapturing glory from yesteryear. I think his decision to run 10000M in Hengelo will be questioned by many if he can not manage to run a 27:30 or faster time and finish in the top three. Haile seems to have ruled out running in the world championships in August but says 2008 Beijing Olympics is a must and will do anything to get ready.

At best, Haile seems to not be thinking clearly, vacillating between retirement and more Olympics, and between marathon and track. He also seems to be distracted by his activities off the track including his business, political mediation, the Millennium Run, and various other VIP appearances. It is great that Haile has all these things that he can focus his attention on after he hangs up his running shoes, but at this time, they may very well be enough of a distraction to prevent him from performing at his best.

Other Ethiopians competing in the 10000M race are Sileshi Sihin and Gebregziabher Gebremariam. On the women's side Gelete Burka (4th in Mombasa) and Mestawot Tufa will face Lornah Kiplagat (1st in Mombasa) and the former Ethiopian Maryam Yusuf Jamal over 5000M.

Best wishes to all. You can watch the race live here.
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UPDATE:
Men's 10000M: Several Ethiopians started the race- Haile, Sileshi Sihine, Gebregziabher Gebremariam, Deriba Merga, and Ali Abdosh. Haile was all smiles and enjoying himself at the start line, chatting it up with Sileshi. Haile kept up with the leaders and the pace all through the whole race staying in 4th and 5th place. As the bell rang for the final lap, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge was in the lead with Sileshi, Gebre, and Haile right on his heels. Kipchoge upped the pace immediately and Haile was dropped off along with Gebre. Coming to the last 100 meter, Kipchoge was still in the lead with SIleshi in second and another Kenyan, Moses Mosop (2nd in Mombasa), in third place. Sileshi pushed hard and he overtook Kipchoge in the last 25 meters to take the win with the smallest of margins. Sileshi ran a very fast time of 26:49 and it looked like Mosop in third, Gebre in fourth, and Haile in fifth, all inside of 27:00. I believe Haile justified his entry in the race by running a very fast time but it is clear that he is nowhere close to winning a championship medal in 10000M. On the flip side, with Haile past his prime and Kenenisa having other difficulties, Sileshi's time to come out of the shadow may finally have arrived and he may be collecting Gold Medals in upcoming championship races.

Women's 5000M : Gelete Burka has won the race in 14:38 with a very dominaing performance. She looked very, very good. She will be a challenge to Tirunesh, Meseret, and Meselech. Gelete barely missed Meseret Defar's meet record from last year. Mestawot Tufa finished fourth and Belaynesh Fekadu finished fifth.

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