Enigma Bekele brings a Diversity of views


ATHLETICS:One of the sport’s all-time greats is in town, but it’s not creating much of a stir – and that’s the way he likes it, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

IF YOU’VE ever wondered what it’s like being the greatest distance runner of all time then perhaps this was the moment that says it all: Kenenisa Bekele, face to face with Diversity, hasn’t a clue who they are, and the feeling is entirely mutual.

It’s not staged, mercifully. Bekele just happens to be in the same hotel, meeting the media ahead of Sunday’s Great Ireland Run. Diversity are performing across the street, in the O2 Arena. They’re not the only ones introduced as complete strangers, because I need prompting too . . . (Oh, that Diversity, the street dance troupe, former champions of Britain’s Got Talent, beating Susan Boyle in the final . . .)

Someone realises this is a photo opportunity not to be missed, so Bekele is asked to show us one of his Olympic gold medals. He reaches into his left pocket, and there it is, complete with shiny red ribbon. Cue immediate gasps of amazement. Wow! The lads from Diversity are pretty impressed by this display of bling too.

“How tired are you after a race?” asks Ashley Banjo, their front man, a reasonable question in the circumstances.

“Not too tired,” says Bekele – who in his black pants, white hoodie, and vintage Nike Air Max, could himself pass for a member of a hip dance act.

The others just look at him – who is that guy? – as if he’s some sort of freak, which many people believe Bekele actually is. Straightaway I realise Bekele could spend the entire week walking around Dublin, without a soul recognising him: the best athlete in the world, and he may as well be from a different planet.

I feel like I’ve always known him, at least in the reporting sense. Ever since Bekele first declared his incredible talent at age 19 by winning double gold at the World Cross Country in Leopardstown, almost exactly 10 years ago, I’ve watched him win three Olympic titles (including the 5,000-10,000m double in Beijing), five World titles on the track, another nine World Cross Country titles, and set four world records. By my calculation, when team titles are also included, Bekele now has 27 major championship gold medals – more than enough to melt down into a life-sized statue of himself.

But does anyone really know him? Unlike Haile Gebrselassie, his fellow Ethiopian and once greatest runner of all time, Bekele hasn’t exactly transcended his sport: Gebrselassie is still recognised all over the world, his great white toothy smile almost as iconic as Ali, but I suspect there are parts of Ethiopia where Bekele is still unknown. Whatever about avoiding the trappings of sporting success, he has a near complete aversion to the attention.

He sits and talks for 20 minutes, with a full command of English, holding his hands prayer-like in a display of uninterrupted serenity. He’s still only 29, yet knows London could be his last chance to win another Olympic gold – part of his motivation being no man has ever won three 10,000m titles.

“It’s not getting any easier,” he says, part of the problem being the calf injury that cursedly dogged his training for the past two years, forcing him to drop out of the 10,000m in Daegu last August – his first ever defeat at the distance. Two weeks later he came out and ran 26:43.16, the fastest time of 2011, then started 2012 by finishing well down the field at the Edinburgh International Cross Country. Once considered invincible, now suddenly unpredictable, if anything it’s added to his enigma.

“I would run for three or four days,” he says, “then the pain would come on. I would take three or four months off, and still, the same. So it was very tough, without training, without competition. It wasn’t a happy time for me, and of course sometimes I thought it was the end. But still I didn’t want to stop. Now it’s very important for me, for my career, to be in London.”

It’s apparent he’s not giving a whole lot away. It’s not that Bekele doesn’t care; it’s just not part of his personality, the small talk, and there’s no point forcing it. Gebrselassie may have been one the great extroverts of the sport, and Bekele is definitely more introvert, but that doesn’t mean he’s not as interesting, nor indeed as generous.

Because what he’s also agreed to is a “surprise” visit to the recently formed Enniskerry Athletic Club, at the St Mary’s GAA club, and because that’s out my neck of the woods I go along for the ride – and soon realise Bekele is much less interested in talking about running than he is Chelsea, Lionel Messi, the Champions League and what happened to Manchester United this week against Wigan Athletic.

First thing he does when we get into the back of the car is turn down the heat, then yawns a couple of times, naturally enough, given he’s just flown in from Addis Ababa. I tell him I visited Ethiopia, last November, and loved it, and he tells me next time I must visit his new training camp, just built on the outskirts of Addis, complete with brand new Mondo track.

I ask him about his training (“120-130km a week”), the benefits of living altitude (“very important”), and about his own athletics heroes (he mentions Abebe Bikila, Murits Yifter, but not Gebrselassie: they’ve always respected each other, but are hardly mates, and it’s said Bekele’s ambition from early on was to better Gebrselassie).

Then I ask him about his toughest opponent: “You know, before this year, I would never think of anybody. This year, I think Mo Farah, of course” – and I wonder is that perhaps another chink in his armour, admitting he now has a potential rival.

Only when I ask him about his interests outside of running does he open up, become more engaging, and raises his own great toothy smile. If there were any doubts about the Premiership being the truly global sporting phenomenon then Bekele’s prompt admission of supporting Chelsea must further remove them: when the greatest distance runner of all time is also sucked in you can’t really begin to argue anymore.

“I watch them just on television,” he says, “but all the time. The big game for us now is Barcelona, next week. If we can stop Messi, maybe.” I ask him if they’ve ever met, and he shakes his head, disappointingly.

As we pull into Enniskerry there’s about 30 children waiting on the GAA field, a few hurdles set up, and some excited looking parents. As Bekele steps out none of them appear to recognise him, but again, once he pulls out that Olympic gold medal, it’s like magic – and the children get pretty excited too.

“Do you have a six-pack,” asks one of them, presumably wanting to see his abs, and not a beer.

I recognise Dave Taylor, one of Ireland’s great distance runners from the 1980s, now a local of Enniskerry, and ask him what he’s doing here. “You know,” he says, “I told my two young boys that Kenenisa Bekele was coming here today, and they were like, who? They didn’t have a clue. All I could say was that if Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi was coming then they’d be first in line, but that Bekele was a better athlete than they were, the greatest of all time.”

Then I wondered if Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi were somehow told the same thing, that Kenenisa Bekele was coming to town, would they have any clue who he was? Maybe that’s what it’s like being the greatest distance runner of all time.