Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Can Kenenisa Bekele win a third straight Olympic title?

It has been nine years since Kenenisa Bekele became the world's best distance runner on the track, beating the man who just might be the greatest runner ever to do it at the 2003 World Championships. In a way, Bekele's accomplishments on the track are almost the equal of Haile Gebrselassie: both have four world titles at 10,000-metre along with two Olympic gold medals. Bekele has five consecutive World Cross Country titles, along with his consecutive Olympic and World Championship doubles, while Gebrselassie has a world indoor title at 1,500 metres to go with multiple world records in the marathon.

If I had to guess, I would guess that Bekele's career on the track will end much like Gebrselassie's, with Bekele remaining good enough to contend but lacking the finishing speed that made him invincible at 10,000 metres for nearly a decade. In Gebrselassie's case, age was the culprit, while Bekele appears to have been undone by injuries. Both, however, have come up against younger rivals who are just faster on the last lap.

Bekele played a big role in getting Gebrselassie off the track, since Gebrselassie simply couldn't compete with his kick. Bekele ran a clumsily-paced 13:00 last week in Oslo, finishing fifth in 13:00. While it's a sign of improvement over his previous 5,000 in that he closed faster, Bekele also finished behind four Ethiopians, including Imane Merga, Tariku Bekele and last year's 5,000 m bronze medallist Dejen Gebremeskel. If Gebremeskel needed to make it clear that his medal from Daegu wasn't a fluke, he did it by beating about a dozen of his countrymen by running a 53-second last lap.

Bekele is no doubt racing himself into shape after a very slow 3,000 to open the year in Doha, and he also ran world-leading time in the 10,000 a week after last year's world championships, but Olympic titles are given out for strength and untouchable finishing speed. The past twenty years of track have given us runners like Paul Tergat, Zersenay Tadese, Sileshi Sihine and even Haile Gebrselassie, who were strong enough to challenge for the win but came up short on the last lap or the last half-lap.

It's possible that Bekele will find the fitness he needs to dominate at what might well be his last Olympics, at least on the track, just as Hicham El Guerrouj managed in 2004. However, his best performance since the 2009 World Championships has been his 26:46 10,000 last year, when he struggled just to win the race. That race was not a substitute for a world title; if the World Championships had been run on that day in Brussels, there's no guarantee that Jeilan, Farah and Merga wouldn't have beaten him anyway.

I will be rooting for Bekele to win a third-straight Olympic title and while his fitness isn't great, I don't think his competition is all that great in the 10,000 outside of Mo Farah. Farah been stellar so far this year, handily beating Bekele in Oregon. However, outside of Farah, the competition isn't so intimidating for Bekele. His brother Tariku will likely be on the team, but Tariku only narrowly beat his brother in Oslo, and I wouldn't count on that result to hold at 10,000 metres in the Olympics. Assuming that the world champion Ibrahim Jeilan is injured and not running, the other Olympic spot appears to be filled by Lelisa Benti.

Kenya held its Olympic trials at the Prefontaine meet in Eugene this month, and the winner was Wilson Kiprop in an unpaced 27:01, though runner-up Moses Masai will probably be a bigger factor. Masai has a personal best of 26:49, a bronze at Berlin and narrowly missed a bronze in Beijing as well. Zersenay Tadese is a perennial threat, and has run a 59:34 half marathon so far this year, along with a fourth-place finish last year. I would be shocked if he won, but he might play the important role of pushing the pace. Galen Rupp, along with Tadese, would be candidates for making the race fast over the final kilometres, which would presumably suit Bekele, since he's unlikely to win in a kick at the bell. 

It appears that while Bekele wouldn't have made the Ethiopian team had they run a no-exceptions, American-style trial at Hengelo or even today, but he might come up with enough fitness to beat Farah, Masai, Kiprop, Rupp and anyone else who might be a factor. I just wouldn't count on it, and I would consider it a mild surprise.

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