Stadium Australia, Sydney, September 25, 2000: 10,000m
They hit the bell, still cagey, still waiting. Two greats sparring as they had done so many times before, as they had in the same event at the previous Olympic games in Atlanta.
On the final bend Tergat made his move, catching Haile napping. (In Ethiopia he is known universally as Haile.) As he broke free of the pack it looked like he’d finally got the beating of his great friend and nemesis, but something stirred in ‘the Emperor’, a force of will that edged him back towards Tergat’s shoulder.
What followed was perhaps the most amazing final 100m of all time. All the more incredible considering that Haile had almost not made it to Sydney at all, such had been his early season injuries. The Ethiopian had already surprised himself – and those who knew the extent of his problems – just by making the final. That he then rose to the occasion in such a grand fashion has perhaps been obscured by the myriad victories before and since. But this was to be the greatest of his career.
In contrast, his friend Paul Tergat would have to spend the rest of his life knowing he had made the biggest mistake of his career. The Kenyan may have shared one of the great finishes in Olympic history, beaten by an epic effort from a true legend, but he knew it could have been different.
Addis Ababa 1988: Abebe Bikila marathon
The story begins over a decade earlier. Haile Gebrselassie’s introduction to big-time athletics had been outrageous. In 1988, the young Haile told his father – who had forbidden him to run – that he was going to Addis Ababa to visit his elder brother, Assefa.
It was partly true, but the primary reason for going to the Ethiopian capital was to run in the Abebe Bikila Marathon, a memorial to the first great Ethiopian distance runner and first repeat winner of the Olympic marathon (1960 and 1964). Haile ran 2:48 around the backstreets of Addis – at altitude. He was just 15 years old.
However, it was a chastened teenager who limped back to the province of Arsi, in the south of the country, the following day. “I ran in street shoes, with plastic soles,” he recalls. “They were full of blood. I only finished because there were no cars, and no other way to get back to the start. The next day, my brother put me on a bus back to Arsela, but the bus stopped several kilometres from my village, and I had to walk. I don’t know how I did it.”
Those of us who have seen him rack up the victories, medals and world records since that novice excursion have got a pretty clear idea of how he did it: with the same grit, tenacity and willpower that bought him all that success over the following two decades. And this was never more evident than on that night in Sydney, in a brutal battle of guts and desire against a man he calls his friend.
Tergat's breakthrough race
Although Tergat is, supposedly, four years older than Haile (whose true age has been the subject of some debate), the Kenyan’s introduction to big-time athletics came two or three years after Haile’s painful debut. Tergat’s breakthrough races came in early 1992.
Then 22, he had placed third in a high-profile military race, but no one expected him to win the Nairobi Championships at the famous Ngong Racecourse. He soon proved it was no fluke though, winning the national title on the same course two weeks later. Almost as striking was the modest whisper, close to inaudible, when interviewed after his victories.
A month later, he was mortified that an injury prevented him running the World Cross Country Championships (WCCC) in Boston. It’s likely he would have found his compatriot, multi-champion John Ngugi, unbeatable that day (when Haile finished second in the junior race). But Tergat would eventually upstage Ngugi and outpace Haile by a distance, as the most successful cross-country runner of the 20th century.
A collision course of running greats
Haile would never hit the heights in cross-country that he did on the track, twice finishing adrift of Tergat victories in the WCCC. But we’re talking track here, and the two East Africans were soon on a collision course on the oval. Later in 1992, Tergat began to slowly progress to the next level with a 5000m in 13:48.64, not even good enough to make the top 100 in the world that year. Haile on the other hand was winning the World Junior ‘double’ of 5000/10,000m in 13:36.06/28:03.99.
Considering how well Haile would get on with Tergat later – the two friends took time to visit each other in their respective countries – his first experience of outsprinting a Kenyan, at the finish of that world junior 10,000m, was somewhat inauspicious. As Haile passed Josphat Machuka 50m from the line, the Kenyan lashed out and hit him in frustration. Machuka was disqualified, but the same scenario, without the accompanying aggro, was to be repeated scores of times over the coming years, culminating in Sydney.
After that double win in the World Junior championships, the victories, the medals and, soon, the world records came fast and frequently for Haile. He didn’t win all his races in 1993, but he did win the biggest, the World 10,000m in Stuttgart. What made this so important was it was the first World gold for an Ethiopian. That immediately gave the youngster the potential to build a status to rival Bikila.
And build he did. The following year he broke his first world record, the 5000m, in Hengelo, near his European base in the Netherlands. Again, he didn’t win all his races that year, but by 1995 the aura of invincibility really tookhold.
Meanwhile, Tergat was making steady progress. The form that took him to 27:18.43 in 1993 would have seen him line up against Haile in Stuttgart, had he been running for any nation other than Kenya. A half marathon time of 60:43 was an indicator of his cross-country and marathon potential. In 1994, he improved to 13:15.07 for 5000m, and then in 1995 began his run of five consecutive victories in the WCCC. This was the one area where Haile just could not compete. After the 1996 World Championships, when he finished fifth behind Tergat’s win, he never ran cross-country again.
Tergat finally made the Kenya team for the World Championships in Gothenburg in 1995, but he was no match for Haile, who again won the 10,000m, with a resurgent Khalid Skah of Morocco (the 1992 Olympic champion), taking silver ahead of Tergat’s bronze. It was the prelude to their first great Olympic duel.
On the next page: Find out whether Haile or Tergat took victory in Atlanta and Sydney.