Olympic Moment: Gebreselassie vs Tergat

Discover the inside story of one of the greatest duels in Olympic history

by Pat Butcher

haile tergat sydney olympics
The big showdown: Sydney (Picture credit: Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Olympic Stadium, Atlanta, July 29, 1996: Olympic 10,000m final

This was the race that raised the Haile/Tergat rivalry to something on a par with the great post-war rivals, Emil Zátopek of Czechoslovakia and Alain Mimoun of France; and the great British middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. And, while the last gasp in Sydney provided the great moment, many practised long distance runners would argue Atlanta was the greater race.

Because while Sydney came down to the last lap, the final 250m, and ultimately the finishing straight, Atlanta was a full 15 minutes of breathtaking drama: an extended acceleration, firstly by Tergat’s team mates, then a scorching final two kilometres by Tergat himself, attempting to burn off Haile in the second half of the race.

The halfway mark in Atlanta was reached in a sedate 13:55.22, and at that point the race looked tailored for Haile’s electrifying finishing sprint. Then the Kenyans got to work. Paul Koech and Machuka (his fists in reserve this time) swapped the lead through the next three kilometres, averaging 2:42 min/km. Then Tergat took over, with a blistering 29-second half-lap…and there
was still two kilometres left to run.

Of the six remaining contenders, only Haile went with him. Tergat ran the next kilometre in 2:33.9, but he couldn’t drop the Ethiopian. Then Haile responded with some speedwork of his own. He took over at the bell, ran the next 200m in 28.4 seconds, and the final lap in well under 60, for a final kilometre in 2:31.46. The second half had been run in 13:11.6, a time beaten only three times in Olympic history in a standalone 5000m final.

Tergat dominated cross-country for the rest of the century but fared no better in his next two World Championships at 10,000m. In Athens in 1997, Haile took over 500m from the finish, and blew him away. Tergat got some consolation a month later when he broke Haile’s 10,000m world record, but the Ethiopian regained it in 1998.

Then in the World Championships in Sevilla in 1999, it was the same old story: Haile gold, Tergat silver. In both races, Haile had sprinted early and opened up a gap, but Tergat had run the last lap in similar times to Haile.

This seemed to have planted a seed in the Kenyan’s mind – that if he could stay with Haile until the bell, or even later, he might be able to outsprint him. So he spent much of the early summer in 2000 honing his finishing speed in training, twice running well under 13 minutes for 5000m.

Meanwhile, Haile was battling an achilles tendon injury that would eventually require surgery. So seriously did it affect his training, he considered pulling out of Sydney. However, pressure from all sides and the strong urge himself to defend his title took him to the starting line.

Stadium Australia, sydney, September 25, 2000: 10,000m

They hit the bell, and this time the situation was very different from Atlanta. Back then, the pair had been together, well ahead of the rest for the final two kilometres, as Tergat sought to kill off Haile’s sprint. This time, Tergat was biding his time, and there were five athletes in the pack at the bell – three Kenyans and two Ethiopians.

Leading was John Korir, tracked closely by Haile. A few metres earlier, Assefa Mezegebu had passed Tergat, who was now boxed on the kerb behind the two Ethiopians; Patrick Ivuti was fifth.
There may have been five there at the bell, but there were only two possible winners and, despite Haile’s relative lack of prime fitness, he knew Tergat was the only threat.

Ever aware, the Ethiopian sensed Tergat slow, step sideways and pull out to pass Mezegebu, so Haile accelerated past Korir and into the lead. There was 300m to go. Less than 50m later, Tergat strode past and took a two- to three-metre lead. This was his chance, maybe his last chance, his only chance, to beat the man who had bested him in three consecutive major championships at
the 10,000m.

But Haile wasn’t beaten – and Tergat surely knew he wouldn’t be until he crossed the line ahead of the Ethiopian. But with that finish line now in sight at the head of the straight, he was still ahead.

Then it became agonising. For the duellists, the pain of raising a sprint at the end of 25 laps, coupled with the palpable fear of failure; and also agonising for their respective fans, those millions with their eyes on TV screens, and the 100,000-plus fortunates now on their feet in the stadium. They were watching one of the greatest duels in Olympic history.

With a finishing tape long since abandoned, Tergat had only a rough idea of the line, whereas Haile had the advantage of Tergat’s back as a target. And it was getting closer. But then so was the line.

Was the difference that both knew Tergat had never beaten Haile on the track? Maybe. Because it was happening again. Haile edged up to Tergat’s shoulder and ghosted past, just as the finish line intervened. The pair had covered the last 100m in around 12 seconds, and Haile had won by a mere nine-hundredths of one of them. It was less than the margin by which Maurice Greene had beaten Ato Boldon in the 100m two days earlier.

Elation and despair. Elation and gold again for one, despair and silver yet again for the other. Of course, it might have been different. And the proof was immediately obvious.

Tergat walked off to pick up a Kenyan flag, then jogged around to thank the fans. Someone thrust a flag into Haile’s hand. He tried to respond, but stumbled to a stop within 20m. Utterly spent, he simply couldn’t take another step.

Haile had done what every runner in history has wanted to; run himself into the ground to win. Which is why, despite almost 30 world records, this was his supreme achievement. Tergat now realised that he had been wrong, terribly wrong, to believe he could beat Haile in a sprint. He knew, as he admitted later and  as Haile himself admitted, that the Ethiopian could have been beaten had he employed the same tactics as he did in Atlanta and taken up the lead at halfway – or even with two kilometres to go.

But he did not, and Haile Gebrselassie, far from being race-fit, had once again beaten one of the world’s greatest distance runners. This was the moment that truly defined him as a great competitor as well as a great runner. What he achieved in that final, agonising push for the line is what separates the magnificent from the simply great. It was a moment that defined a true legend.

Relive more of Haile Gebrselassie's astonishing career highlights with our inspiring photo slideshow.

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