The Book On: Middle Distance

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

The Book On: Middle Distance

It is written in the sod: two golds for Haile Gebrselassie
By Martin Dugard

Haile Gebrselassie doesn't just run: he redefines the perceived boundaries of human performance. Last June, the 23-year-old, 5-foot-3 Ethiopian broke the 10,000-meter world record by an astonishing 8.7 seconds and then two months later shattered the 5,000-meter mark by the even more incomprehensible margin of 10.91 seconds. And his world indoor best of 7:30.72 for 3,000 meters, set last winter, was perhaps the most amazing feat of all--the equivalent of running back-to-back sub-four-minute miles. Slightly mystical, slightly wacky (Gebrselassie psyches himself up for big races by mowing his desired time into the lawn of his Addis Ababa home), the man who got his start in stereotypical African fashion--by running five miles to and from school--has become perhaps the best middle-distance runner the world has ever known. In Atlanta, Gebrselassie will attempt what only four others have done before: Win the 5,000 and 10,000 at the same Olympic Games. It's a daunting task: five hard-fought races (including preliminary heats) in just eight days, made all the more difficult by Atlanta's stifling heat.

Gebrselassie's main competition will come from the notoriously belligerent Kenyan contingent. It worked as a team to box in Gebrselassie at March's World Cross-Country Championships, where he placed fifth, 44 seconds behind Kenya's Paul Tergat. "I won't make the same mistakes in Atlanta," assures Gebrselassie. Look for him to avoid Kenya's Ismael Kirui and Daniel Komen in the 5,000, and Tergat and 1996 Boston Marathon winner Moses Tanui in the 10,000, by grabbing an early lead and holding on to it the entire way. Americans Bob Kennedy (5,000) and Todd Williams (10,000) could contend for lesser medals, but only if the pace dawdles. Meanwhile, the men's 1,500 will likely go to Algeria's world-record holder, Noureddine Morceli, though he has trouble in the slow, tactical races that Olympic finals tend to be.

On the women's side, the glamour event will be the 5,000, in which Ireland's reigning world champion, Sonia O'Sullivan, will face archrival Fernanda Ribeiro of Portugal. Though O'Sullivan's 1995 best of 14:41.40 is well off Ribeiro's 14:36.45, O'Sullivan won when it counted, defeating Ribeiro in each of their four meetings last year. Look for O'Sullivan to edge out Ribeiro, with South African Elana Meyer taking the bronze. America's best hope, Lynn Jennings, has an outside chance to medal in either the 5,000 or the 10,000, but her 1995 best of 15:11.38 in the shorter race isn't quite world class, and she's beyond the peak years that led to her third-place finish in the 10,000 in Barcelona. O'Sullivan could also be the favorite in the women's 1,500, after posting the world's fastest time (3:58.85) last year. She'll likely focus on the 5,000, though, leaving the door open for either Maria Mutola of Mozambique or Algeria's Boulmerka Hassiba, gold medalist in the Barcelona Games and the 1995 world champion.

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