Did he fall, or was he pushed? The answer to both of those questions is an unequivocal yes. But the corollary to the second question, was it deliberate? leads us dangerously close to the field of conspiracy theory. I am of course talking about the fall of Kenenisa Bekele at the start of the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon last Friday morning, which derailed his attempt right from the gun of adding the marathon world record to a curriculum vitae which is without precedent in the world of long-distance running – three Olympic golds, umpteen world titles and a handful of world records, the most important of which, at the classic 5000 and 10,000 metres distances seem likely to go unchallenged for many years.
The significance of adding the world marathon record is that it would make him the only man in history to concurrently hold world records at the three Olympic long distances. Ingrid Kristiansen achieved it during the infancy of women’s long distance running, but the men’s events being far longer established makes it harder to achieve, the more so since marathon running is now a speciality. Indeed, Bekele admitted at Wednesday’s press conference in Dubai that it has taken him two years and half a dozen attempts to become a true marathoner.
He may yet achieve that triple-crown, and if so he would deserve to be bracketed alongside the immortal Emil Zátopek* – the only man in history to win all three Olympic distance golds at a single Games, in Helsinki 1952.
Twenty four hours after his eventual withdrawal from the Dubai Marathon with a calf strain at around 23 kilometres, Kenenisa confirmed that he would soon be training again, and that he would be running April’s London Marathon, where he was third last year; but he was cooling on a potential run in the World Championships, also in London this summer; which might suggest that his best chance of securing that elusive marathon record would be in late September, back in Berlin, where he came so tantalisingly close to Dennis Kimetto’s 2.02.57 four months ago, missing it by just six seconds.
It was his manager Jos Hermens who suggested that Kenenisa might have been deliberately pushed to the ground at the start in Dubai, adding, “There’s a lot of bad shit going on in Ethiopia right now”. This was a reference to riots and demonstrations, mostly by Oromo people, in response to a government crackdown on dissent among the alternative ethnic/linguistic group. Over 500 people have been killed in the last year over what is claimed to be government land grabs, as well as political repression. Some of those riots erupted immediately prior to the Olympic Games in Rio last summer. And at those Olympics, Feyisa Lilesa, who is Oromo, crossed his forearms in an anti-government protest gesture both when he crossed the finish line in second place in the marathon, and later at the press conference.
Feyisa refused to return home to Ethiopia, despite official assurances that he would not be hounded; he in turn claimed he would be killed. He is currently in the USA, seeking asylum. Bekele is Oromo too, and when he criticised team selection for Rio last year, claimed that his own ethnic provenance was being held against him. Yet he is an admitted and public government supporter.
I only heard Hermens’ ‘deliberate push’ claim shortly before leaving Dubai, and did not have an opportunity to put it to Kenenisa. But in a lengthy conversation with him earlier, he was unequivocal in his support for the government. “As one of the national celebrities or personalities, you want your country to be peaceful and successful. You need to help. You cannot stand aside when someone wants to damage your country. If someone asks me a political question, I always reply that everyone involved should think carefully, and have patience. It’s not only Ethiopia which has different languages and conflict between groups, but we cannot have terrorism. There will never not be complaints or conflicts, that’s normal. But the government is keeping the country stable and secure. We feel safe”.
He was equally unequivocal in his insistence (as he has been at Wednesday’s press conference in Dubai) about his chances of breaking the marathon world record. He did not refer directly to Friday’s winner, his compatriot Tamirat Tola, but he came close to being dismissive of Tola’s personal best victory time of 2.04.11.
“I was at least in the same condition as Berlin. But I was doing better training, maybe 10-15% better. I would easily have been the winner; there is no question, if that didn’t happen. My goal was to win with a world record. 2.04.11 is an easy time for me; I had at least 2.03 in my legs…if I didn’t fall down…”
If there was an unsung hero Friday morning, it was the fun-runner, as he referred to him, who picked Bekele up from the ground, pointed him in the right direction, clapped him on the back, and sent him on his way. (Cue a social media search for the helpful party – he deserves some kudos).
“I was on the front line, but the start is very narrow, said Kenenisa. “Even before the start, many people were pushing. There’s supposed to be a gap between the elites and the others, but the normal runners were mixed in. Then two or three guns went off, and there was confusion. With the weight of the people, and I got my leg tangled with someone, I fell. I was shocked and hurt (here, he peels off the bandage, to show us where his elbow had been skinned).
“For a few seconds I was not thinking straight. It was like a car crash. I was with a friend once when we had a crash, we weren’t injured, but we were confused. And I was confused for a few seconds, and my right side hurt. Then a fun-runner came, and said, ‘Oh my god, Bekele’. He picked me up, and said, ‘Don’t stop’. So I started to run, and I think, unconsciously I ran too fast for the first kilometre. I was probably the fastest starter (the first kilometre was run in two minutes, 58 seconds, which suggests he might have run at least ten seconds faster to latch onto the back of the lead group).
“But my body was cracking, I felt pain everywhere, like burning. I was 100 metres behind, and I caught up too fast. After 15k, when my body was returning to normal, I started to hurt. I felt unbalanced. My hip on one side was blocked. According to the physiotherapist, it was affecting my calf muscle. I never felt that before; my hamstring, yes, but not my calf. I wanted to accelerate, but my calf cramped. It was an unlucky day for me. That never happened to me before. I’ve had a long time off with injury in the past, but this was unexpected”.
His drop-out on Friday means he has failed to finish twice in Dubai, a hamstring problem caused his withdrawal at 30k two years ago. But it was sufficient to see the disappointment and frustration of both himself and his team to know that he must have been in shape to challenge Kimetto’s 2.02.57. “I’d like to come back to Dubai if the organisers allow it,” he said. I don’t doubt that they’d be the ones falling over to accommodate him, whether he breaks that record this year or not.
Prior to Berlin last September, many if not most track fans thought Kenenisa would not succeed at the marathon. He turned all that on its head with his 2.03.03 and his demolition of former world record holder and Olympic silver medallist Wilson Kipsang in the final kilometre. Now, the question is can he find those other seven seconds, and leave an even more indelible mark in the history books?
Athletes coming towards the end of their career often talk themselves up to us journalists, and anyone else who might be listening, as a means of convincing themselves. The athletes who have told me that their track sessions are as good if not better than when they were in their heyday a decade before are legion. And when they get back on the track in a race, that form somehow never materialises. But that 2.03.03 was not an illusion; so let’s give Kenenisa the benefit of the doubt. And he sounded ultra-convincing just two days ago.
In his stage drama The Europeans, the cult British playwright Howard Barker has a character say, “Never commit the error of self-doubt”. That character could just as well have been Kenenisa Bekele. He ended the first part of our talk with a firm declaration – “My plan was to break the (world) record this year; if not, then next year. My time is not over yet. The day will come. I am one of the best athletes. It will happen”.
In the second part of this interview, which I will publish in a few days’ time, Kenenisa talks about his relationship with the Italian coaching guru Renato Canova; his rivalry with illustrious predecessor Haile Gebrselassie; about Mo Farah’s chances of making a successful transition to the marathon; and much more….