Already the undisputed GOAT, can Kenenisa Bekele chase another Olympic medal?

It would be a fitting finale to an incredible career to see the legendary Ethiopian, at 42, line up in the marathon in Paris

Blame it on foot-and-mouth.

If it wasn’t for that “looming catastrophe” (according to The Irish Times editorial in March 2001) then Kenenisa Bekele would have first announced himself to the world on the lush green turf of Leopardstown racecourse. The soon-to-become greatest distance runner of all time.

Instead, when the 2001 World Cross Country originally set for Leopardstown that year was moved on short notice to a muddy racecourse in Ostend in Belgium, after the first outbreak of that disease in Ireland since wartime, it was there Bekele got to leave his groundbreaking mark. And in more ways than one.

Like most seminal moments I can remember vividly where I was – with a small group walking the far sections of the course before the senior races on the Sunday, when suddenly this incredibly relaxed runner came sweeping past. He was leading the junior men’s race by a considerable margin, as if jogging, and duly ended up winning by a record 33 seconds.


One of us then realised this was Kenenisa Bekele, who had already finished second in the senior men’s short course race the day before, losing by a mere two seconds. This was reportedly only the second time he’d been outside Ethiopia, yet here he was, a slight 18-year-old, already dominating his sport with absolute ease.

Then in 2002, when Leopardstown did get to host the event, Bekele ran away with both senior races, long and short, helping himself to two team silver medals as well. He would go undefeated in the World Cross Country until 2007, before winning back another title in 2008, which brought his individual gold medal tally in that event to 11, and his combined total, team medals included, to 25.

On the track Bekele soon become every bit as dominant, winning the 10,000m at his first World Championships in Paris in 2003, adding three more gold medals in that event, plus a 5,000m-10,000m double at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and again at the Berlin World Championships in 2009. About as unbeatable as any athlete gets.

He also set for four world records, including in both those distances outdoors, which lasted 16 years, and when he won the World Indoor 3,000m in 2006, Bekele become the first and still only athlete in history to hold an Olympic title, World title, World Indoor title, and World Cross Country title at the same time.

By then, Bekele’s record was considered by most in distance running circles as the “greatest of all time”, rivalled perhaps only by his Ethiopian compatriot Haile Gebrselassie, who in fact could never touch him on the track or country.

There were a couple of early blips, Bekele unable to complete the distance double in 2003 when an even younger Kenyan named Eliud Kipchoge won that World Championships 5,000m in Paris (reportedly still only 18 at the time). A year later, Hicham El Guerrouj from Morocco beat him to the Olympic 5,000m title, but that was the last time either of those two got the better of him on the track.

If the true definition of greatness includes overcoming some adversity, then Bekele has certainly endured that too. In January 2005, his 18-year-old fiancee Alem Techale died of an apparent heart attack while on a training run alongside him, in the hills outside of Addis Ababa.

All this resonates more for me given Bekele’s arrival and rapid rise coincided with my inheritance of this correspondence, and he’s been a near constant on the track and country and now road in the 23 years since, when so many other athletes have come and gone.

There were some telltale signs of his decline on the track leading into 2012, when on a visit to Dublin for the Great Ireland Run I got to ride in a taxi with Bekele.

Still only 29, he possibly saw London as his last chance to win another Olympic gold medal (part of his motivation being no man had ever won three 10,000m titles).

“It’s not getting any easier,” he said, part of the problem being the calf injury that cursedly dogged his training for the previous two years.

“I would run for three or four days, 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.”

As it turned out, he surrendered both his Olympic titles to Britain’s Mo Farah, finishing a close fourth, just two seconds behind, in the 10,000m. Inevitably that drew Bekele into the marathon, and in 2014 he made his debut in Paris, running 2:05:04 (faster than Gebrselassie’s or Paul Tergat’s debut).

Still, dogged by a myriad of old injuries (Achilles pain, a back issue, calf, hips, hamstring, etc) he missed out on selection for the Olympic marathon in Rio.

A month after Rio, Bekele won the Berlin Marathon, then in the hope of being selected for Tokyo 2020, he won it again in 2019, running 2:01:41, just two seconds outside the then world record set by Kipchoge the previous year and the third-fastest man ever.

When the Tokyo Games were postponed for a year because of Covid-19, Bekele’s apparent lack of race fitness meant he missed out again, and with that his chance of running in a fourth Olympics.

Only surely now, a month before he turns 42, Bekele has earned another consideration. He ran 2:04:19 to finish fourth in Valencia last December, before finishing second behind Kenya’s Mutiso Munyao in last month’s London Marathon, breaking his own over-40 world record by four seconds, running 2:04:15.

What is certain is that Sisay Lemma will be selected for Ethiopia, winner of last month’s Boston Marathon, and likely Tamirat Tola, winner of last year’s New York Marathon.

For reasons unclear, the Ethiopia Federation have delayed the official announcement of their marathon selections for Paris, but I’d love to hear any argument against Bekele, 12 years after his last Olympic appearance, his loyalty to Ethiopia never questioned, and the undisputed GOAT.