Who Can Catch Haile? A Commentary by Pat Butcher


Pat Butcher, our world correspondent of athletics, concerns himself with Haile Gebrseslassie and his quest to break his own world record in Dubai early in
2008. Can anyone beat the man? A world record holder 23 or 24 times over,
the little Emperor showed his stuff at this past real,-Berlin marathon when he
set the new world record....

Over 30 years ago, the fascination in the USA with multiple national record holder, distance runner Steve Prefontaine was such that tee-shirts bearing the legend 'Go Pre!' were big-sellers, and not just at his alma mater, the University of Oregon. Inevitably some jokers decided to market tee-shirts with the alternative message, 'Stop Pre!'. Prefontaine got in on the joke by wearing one of the latter himself.

Nowadays, marathon fans have taken up the relay, and attend races featuring Haile Gebselassie, and wave cards and banners bearing the legend, 'Go Haile!'. Geb has never needed any invitation to do that, proof of which is the 26 world records and bests that he has amassed in his 15 years at the top. Nobody has yet come up with a 'Stop Haile!' tee-shirt, but as the Ethiopian prepares for the million dollar Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon - his only 42.2k race before Beijing - on January 18, that is one of two questions being asked, ie can he 'Go' to another world record after his 2.04.26 in Berlin three months ago, and can anybody 'Stop' him?

Jos Hermens, Haile's manager, and a former world record holder himself said prior to his charge's latest feat, "I'd like him to break the record by a little in Berlin, and by a lot in Dubai". Well, Geb took 29 seconds off in Berlin, but is being lined up with some elite pacemakers like former world half-marathon champion, Fabiano Joseph of Tanzania, and winner of Boston and New York marathons 2002, Rodgers Rop, to help him attack his record in Dubai.

As for anyone preventing him, Sammy Korir has the credentials to do it, having finished just one second behind his compatriot, when Paul Tergat set the previous record of 2.04.55 in Berlin 2003. But Korir is coming off a lengthy shinbone injury, and despite a winning 2.06.38 in Rotterdam 2006, that was his last completed marathon, and another sub-2.05 might be currently beyond the Kenyan, who turned 36 a week ago. His manager Federico Rosa said today (Wednesday), "I would certainly expect him to be doing 2.07, 2.08, but with such time off....". The gap at the end of that sentence prefigures the likely one between Geb and his pursuers.

But there will be no shortage of takers in what is potentially the biggest pay-day in marathon history. The men's and women's prize pot is one million dollars, with the biggest ever first prize of $250,000 for each; and a million dollar bonus for a world record.

William Todoo Rotich is defending champion, having run the second fastest time in the history of the race, 2.09.53 last year. He might have gone faster, but he played a waiting game, duelling with the previous year's champion, Joseph Ngeny, until 38k before breaking away. But his capacity as a prophet may be more enduring. Following victory last year, he offered a tantalising assessment of what might be achieved in Dubai : "I think with the right people and pacing, someone could do 2:05 here".

Another former winner is Geshaw Melese of Ethiopia, who prevailed in 2004. His best time came when he won Paris 2006 in 2.08.03, and he finished 14th in the recent IAAF World Championships in Osaka. Other leading contenders to chase Geb's shadow are Raymond Kipkoech, who preceded Tergat as Berlin winner 2002, in his personal best of 2.06.47. And Tesfaye Tola of Ethiopia, who won Olympic bronze in Sydney, and became one of that select band under 60min for the 'half' when he won the world title earlier the same year.

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