Throwback Thursday: The day Kenenisa Bekele became a true legend

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Kenenisa Bekele winning 10000m world title in Berlin. Andre Zehetbauer via Flickr.

It was the night that Kenenisa Bekele had officially sealed his place in distance running royalty. A night that the multiple world record holder proved beyond doubt that he was truly the best in the world.

When Bekele went to Beijing ten years ago and stormed to two Olympic golds and two Olympic records to go with them, the small Ethiopian had finally proved that he was, as Steve Cram put it ‘a world legend’.

In truth, there is no definitive answer to who the greatest ever male long distance runner really is.

Haile Gebresalassie broke record after record, Emil Zatopek won an unprecedented Olympic treble, while Paavo Nurmi looked simply unbeatable.

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But without doubt the most graceful, the most elegant and on paper was the world 5,000m and 10,000m recoed holder Bekele.

Now 37-years-old, the Ethiopian has to take a back-seat to younger and quicker athletes he used to sweep aside such as world marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge.

But in his prime, he was not only was the best runner around, but his stone-faced style and unrivalled ability could sometimes look more machine than man, as if he could just keep on running forever without breaking a stride.

Before 2008 Bekele was already the dominant force of distance running and had been since his first Olympic gold at Athens in 2004.

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World cross country titles, track titles and world records had established him as Ethiopia’s and indeed the world’s perfect successor to previous running great Haile Gebrselassie.

It was his seemingly perfect blend of speed and endurance that truly marked him out, effortlessly able to switch through the gears with the flick of a switch to turn a close race into a dominant victory within a matter of seconds.

And this is also the trait that would feature prominently in both his 2008 Olympic races over 5000m and 10,000m, as he headed to Beijing all set to seal a place amongst the greats

There was of course barely any doubt that Bekele would walk away with the gold, but it was all about the way he would do it.

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In the 10,000m, like many who emerge victorious, he began by sitting back, waiting behind the two Eritrean brothers Zersenay and Kidane Tadese in a typically slow and tactical first half.

Then as the Eritreans’ efforts wore down it was the turn of the Kenyans¬†Moses Ndiema Masai and Micah Kogo to significantly up the pace and bring the race to Bekele.

But as the huge, bunched pack slowly whittled down as the laps went on, commentator Steve Cram and could not shake the motion that the race was “beginning to have a familiar feel”, as Bekele simply sat, unfazed, untroubled, simply waiting.

And then he struck. Just before they hit the bell, Bekele flicked his switch and ghosted past the Kenyans to move to the front with only his team-mate Sileshi Sihine going with him.

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But the speed, the strength and the stamina was too much as Bekele effortlessly thundered away to take the gold in an Olympic record time of 27.01.17.

With the 10,000m now won Bekele now entered the 5000m with the freedom to give everything. His 10,000m was typically tactical, but now with 5000m gold to win, the champion was simply going to run everyone else into oblivion.

Almost from the off Bekele attacked, sitting up at the front and constantly switching the pace.

It was as if the world record holder was made of fire, all who got close to him could not cope with the heat without getting burned out of the race. This time, when Bekele hit the bell, his win was much more emphatic, as he once again flicked the switched and sprinted away from chaser Eliud Kipchoge into territory only he could reach.

The celebrations officially began before he reached the backstraight, with the typically reserved runner able to lift one finger up and let out a grin as he ran through the bend. It was almost cruel to see how much he was enjoying his domination of the final, which once again brought another Olympic record of 12.57.82.

Few now could deny Bekele his rightful place amongst the distance running greats, the world records were there, the world titles were there and now the Olympic double had been fulfilled in truly dominant fashion.

A world championship double the year after would prove to be his last major medals, as injury and loss of form saw his streak at the top at the track quickly fade. The running legend still had some great moments, including a pulsating victory over Mo Farah in the 2013 Great North Run.

However, his Olympic double ten years was arguably the pinnacle for Bekele, when he officially became immortalized in history as a legend of distance running in his own superb right.

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First published on: 17 October, 2018 12:10 pm

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