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[ODDS and EVENS] Haile Gebrselassie Produced One of His Best Athletic Feats 25 Years Ago in Japan

On the anniversary of his double gold-medal haul, we look at what it took for Haile Gebrselassie to challenge himself at two distances in Gunma Prefecture.

Looking back at a memorable snapshot of sports history from March 1999, reminds us how quickly time flies. Just like Haile Gebrselassie in his athletic prime while winning scores of running races.

The 1999 IAAF World Indoor Championships, held in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, from March 5-7, provided a global showcase for track and field's premier indoor competition in Asia for the first time.

Gebrselassie had achieved incredible success in the years leading up to the end of the 20th century, winning four world titles in the men's 10,000 meters in the biennial outdoor competition (1993, 1995, '97 and '99) and the first of back-to-back Olympic golds in his signature race at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

That continued in the early part of this century, including four consecutive victories in the Berlin Marathon (2006-09) and three in a row in the Dubai Marathon (2008-10). And the Ethiopian legend became only the third man to repeat as Olympic 10,000-meter winner (Emil Zatopek and Lasse Viren were the others), when he triumphed at the 2000 Sydney Games, beating Kenya's Paul Tergat by 9 seconds.

Gebrselassie didn't need anyone to remind him of his athletic prowess before he stepped onto the track at Green Dome Maebashi 25 years ago this week. But like many great achievers in various walks of life, he wanted to pose new challenges for himself. Specifically, he set this target for 1999.

Haile Gebrselassie
Halie Gebrselassie breaks the world indoor two-mile record in a time of 8 minutes and 4.69 seconds at the Norwich Union Grand Prix athletics event at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, England, on February 21, 2003. (Ian Hodgson/REUTERS)

Haile Gebrselassie Looked Back on His Outlook for 1999

What did Gebrselassie have in mind for 1999?

He recalled his mindset for that year in Haile Gebrselassie: The Emperor of Long Distance (2013), a book featuring Jiro Mochizuki's excellent photos and short reflections and background on Haile's illustrious career.

"By this time I had been running at the top for ten years and had a bit of experience and knowledge in athletics. I wanted to expand my experience in middle-distance events as well," Gebrselassie wrote in a passage nearly midway through the book.

"Before the indoor season began, I oriented my practice to improve in the 800- and 1,500-meter distances. I completely changed my training program, did more speed on track instead of cross country endurance running at home. That was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my long career."

Gebrselassie noted that he won the 3,000 at an indoor meet in Karlsruhe, Germany in January 1999, setting a world record in 7 minutes, 26.80 seconds. At the same time, he started coping with pain in his right Achilles tendon.

He didn't slow down, though. On Valentine's Day, he broke the world indoor record in the 5,000 (12:50.39) in Birmingham, England. The previous world mark was 12:59.04.

Haile Gebrselassie
Haile Gebrselassie competes in the men's 10,000 meters at the 1997 World Athletics Championships in Athens, a race he won in 27:24.58. (Ian Waldie/REUTERS)

Approaching the 1999 World Indoor Championships

Only weeks away from the World Indoor Championships in Gunma Prefecture, Gebrselassie had to deal with his lower leg ailment.

In the book, Gebrselassie recalled that "the pain in my Achilles tendon was getting worse before I went to Japan."

Gebrselassie highlighted the challenge he faced in preparing for his two big races in Maebashi in a February 2018 interview with the World Athletics website (the IAAF, or International Association of Athletics Federations, rebranded as World Athletics in 2019). 

"The schedule was the problem," he said before adding, "The event took place over only three days with the 3,000-meter final on Friday, 1,500-meter heats on Saturday and 1,500-meter final on Sunday."

He then said, "The recovery was very short. Thankfully very few athletes (13) entered the 3,000 meters so it became just a straight final. I was also used to running two rounds of the 10,000 meters at major outdoor championships before 1999 which also helped."

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Back-to-Back Victories in Maebashi

On March 5, Gebrselassie was victorious in the 3,000, clocking 7:53.57, with Kenya's Paul Bitok taking second (7:53.79), followed by Ethiopia's Million Wolde in third (7:53.85).

In the 1,500 qualifying heats a day later, Gebrselassie ran the fastest time (3:41.22) among 18 runners who completed their race. And for him, that set the stage for big expectations on Sunday, the final day of the three-day meet.

Spectators in Maebashi ― as well as those who watched highlights of the 1,500 final on TV programs around the world ― saw Gebrselassie excel in the spotlight. He clocked a World Indoor Championships race record 3:33.77 to hold off Kenya's Loban Rotich (3:33.98) for the title.

After winning the gold, Gebrselassie described the experience at Green Dome Maebashi.

"One gold medal in a championships is ordinary, I wanted to get two gold and be a little different," he told reporters after the race with a laugh. "Today in the 1,500 meters I had a very close competition. I judged my finishing burst according to the competitors around me at the time. Before any race I do my homework, and in that way I remained confident even after two long days of running prior to this 1,500-meter final."

Haile Gebrselassie
Haile Gebrselassie crosses the finish line to set a new world record at the 35th Berlin Marathon on September 28, 2008. Gebrselassie triumphed in 2 hours, 3 minutes, 59 seconds. (Tobias Schwarz/REUTERS)

Coping with Fatigue

The double gold medalist 25 years ago in Gunma Prefecture then said, "The flight out to Japan made me very tired. Last night (Saturday) was the first night of sleep that I have managed to gain."

Clearly, sleep didn't have a negative impact on Gebrselassie's performance.

But as bronze medalist Andres Diaz of Spain insisted after the race, Gebrselassie is, well, Superman.

"Haile is great. He is from another galaxy like Hicham [El Guerrouj]," Diaz commented, referring to the Moroccan runner who collected three Olympic gold medals and won a combined seven indoor and outdoor world titles between 1995 and 2003. "They are simply unbeatable."

Haile Gebrselassie
Haile Gebrselassie celebrates by raising the trophy after winning the Dubai Marathon for the third consecutive year on January 22, 2010. (Mosab Omar/REUTERS)

Reflections on How Gebrselassie Won the 1,500

In the 1,500 final, early pacesetter William Tanui of Kenya led after 800 meters. More than 20 years later, Gebrselassie spoke about the on-the-go calculations he had to make in order to win the race.

"I remember the Kenyan pushed from the beginning and it was really tough," Gebrselassie said, according to the World Athletics website. "One of the difficulties I had was that I was mainly a 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter runner and I did not know the strengths and weaknesses of many in the 1,500 meters."

He added, "I did not know how strong they would be over the last two laps, one lap or in the last 50 meters. If you watch the last lap, the other Kenyan (Rotich) challenged strongly. It was very close, but I just managed to out-sprint him."

As a result, Haile Gebrselassie secured his 1,500-3,000 double at the World Indoor Championships in Maebashi.

And in 2018, he mentioned this during the World Athletics interview: "It was one of my greatest achievements. When I look back on the memories, it was really nice."

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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