Osaka - Of the many nicknames that have been given to Ethiopia’s twice World 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele, Anbessa, which translates to lion in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language, has perhaps adorned him more to his people than no other.
Yet when the world 5000m and 10,000m record holder came across the real member of the species this summer; it was an encounter he wished never happened.
Real life encounter with a lioness
“When I was training up at the Entoto Hills [popular training venue for Ethiopian runners on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa] with my brother Tariku, I swear that I saw a lioness and her cub about 100m away,” he said. “We stopped abruptly, let them quietly return to the forest, and then proceeded to turn away.”
“I was scared a bit at the time. I had heard stories that a lioness would get angry if she thought anything would hurt her cub. When we asked shepherds whether lions existed in the area, they said the forests did not have any lions, only Cheetahs. I still do not believe it. It was a lioness and her cub just like the ones I saw many times on television.”
Overcomes initial fitness doubts
His chance encounter with one of the most ferocious animals on planet earth was probably ill-timed to say the least, coming at a time when Bekele was recovering from the effects a career-defining moment in Mombassa where he pulled out of senior men’s 12km race in the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in the Kenyan coastal city.
“Before the track season, I even doubted whether I would return back to my best,” Bekele said further reflecting everyone’s fears. “Mombassa had affected me a lot. Nothing like this ever happened to me and I was worried.”
Bekele failed to allay any of those fears when he clocked a modest 8:13.51 for two miles at the FBK-Thales Games in Hengelo, Netherlands at the end of May in his first track race of the season.
“I was happy that I won the race,” he reiterates. “I knew that fast times would come later. The key in Hengelo was to return back to competition and test myself. I had planned to run fast, but the weather would not allow me. But I was not worried because the key was winning and getting back to competition.”
On Mottram rivalry – ‘It was not as it was made out to be’
With the larger part of the track season looming, Bekele then chose to pull out of another two-mile encounter at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene to continue his rehabilitation.
“I felt that I was not in a condition to race again,” said Bekele. “I knew I had to get back to training to get ready to other races. I withdrew because I had to consider the future.”
While Bekele returned to training, his Australian rival Craig Mottram quickly asserted himself in the international circuit beating among others Bekele’s younger brother Tariku in Eugene. By the time Bekele lined up to compete against the tall Aussie in Sheffield in mid July, their rivalry, which dates back to the IAAF World Cup in Athens last September, had caught public attention.
“Everyone talked about him,” says Bekele. “Everyone referred to the defeat in Athens last year as a major event and he [Mottram] was given a lot of publicity as the man to have beaten Kenenisa.”
“I ran in Sheffield specifically to test myself against Mottram. I found out that there really was never a competition between us. The only reason he beat me in Athens was because I was jetlagged, tired, and had run too much in the season.”
In Sheffield and running against heavy rainfall, Bekele produced a career best 3000m time of 7:26.69 defeating the World championships 5000m bronze medallist by nearly nine seconds.
“It was not as it was made out to be,” says Bekele. “There was no contest in Sheffield. I run alone when the pacemakers dropped out and the rivalry was perhaps too exaggerated. He is not as strong as people thought.”
Impressive lead-up to Osaka
Bekele followed up his victory in Sheffield with impressive victories in Monaco (3000m), Zaragoza (5000m), and Stockholm (3000m) setting world leading times in two of the races. And with just a few days before he attempts a third World championship gold over the 10,000m in Osaka, the 25-year old is quietly confident about his prospects and is back roaring like a real lion once again.
“I want to make my country proud and my people happy,” he says. “I expect a good result in Osaka.”
Apart from the challenge Bekele is expected to face from his compatriots Sileshi Sihine, Tadesse Tola, and Gebregziabher Gebremariam, the eleven-time World Cross Country champion will also come up against Eritrean Zersenay Tadesse, the man who beat him in Mombassa.
“I am ready for the challenge of anyone,” says a confident Bekele. “I do not want to say I can beat him or not. I just think that I do not have any lesser ability than Zersenay or anyone in the field.”
In addition to Tadesse’s running in Mombassa last March, Bekele and the rest of the Ethiopians capitulated to atrocious hot and humid conditions. While he admits the weather will be a factor this year, Bekele says there will be no repeat of the outcome in Osaka.
“The weather will be difficult to handle,” he says. “But I hope to be able to handle it as much as the competition.”
However, he admits that the weather has influenced his decision of only running the 10,000m and not attempting a unique 5000m/10000m double in Osaka. “The weather will be too much for two finals and one heat,” he said. “It is also good to give a chance to the youth in Ethiopia. If I compete, I know I can win at least a medal each in the two events.”
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF