Stars to watch

KENENISA BEKELE

SYDNEY witnessed the most memorable 10,000m ever perhaps. The sight of Haile Gebrselassie tearing down the home straight, in pursuit of Kenyan Paul Tergat will remain etched in memory for ever.

Gebrselassie won in the end. No one could believe that the Ethiopian could win from what looked a hopeless position. As he looks back at that race, even Kenenisa Bekele cannot believe that his idol and countryman had won the race. But now, Bekele has a tougher task than Gebrselassie, that of attempting the distance double at the Athens Olympics.

At the beginning of the season, Bekele had all but ruled out the double, saying that it would be too difficult. "It will be my first Olympics and we can expect very hot weather there, so having all these in mind, I will run only one event," he had said in March.

But by the time the Ethiopian federation entered its names, Bekele was listed in both the 5000 metres and the 10,000 metres. The schedule will be okay for this 22-year-old, who has taken over the distance rein from Gebrselassie. The 10,000m final is on August 20, the 5000m heats on August 25 and final on August 28.

Bekele will be the overwhelming favourite in the 10,000m, no doubt. But can he prevail in the 5000? World champion Eliud Kipchoge will be there and he will be tough to beat. But then Bekele is capable of anything. That was what everyone used to say when Gebrselassie was at his peak.

Bekele's ascend to the distance throne had started at the Worlds in Paris last year. He beat Gebrselassie for the 10,000 metres gold but was beaten by Kipchoge and Hicham El Guerrouj in the 5000 metres.

Then, in May-June this year, Bekele removed Gebrselassie's name from the record books, bettering the 5,000m and 10,000m world records within the span of nine days. He clocked 12:37.35 and 26:20.31.

Bekele still has a great deal of respect for Gebrselassie. He knows who the legend is back home. "It will be me and Haile in the 10,000. All Ethiopians love Haile. But people now call out my name at home. So, if one of us wins the 10,000 in Athens, the country will be happy. Of course, I hope it is me," he said in a recent interview.

If he does score the distance double he will emulate countryman Miruts Yifter, the last man to win the double, in Moscow in 1980. Four other men, Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland (1912), Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia (1952), Vladimir Kuts of the USSR (1956) and Lasse Viren of Finland (1972 and 1976) had achieved the double before Yifter. — K. P. Mohan

RACHID RAMZI

HE had come into prominence at the Asian Games in Busan two years ago. A wiry young man from Bahrain, he beat a couple of Chinese and Qatari Abdul Rahman Sulaiman, for the 1500 metres gold. No one had heard much about him till then. Someone from Bahrain winning the 1500? Well, he was not exactly from Bahrain but from Morocco. That explained it; he had some pedigree all right.

By the time Rachid Ramzi won the metric mile in Busan, another Moroccan import of Bahrain, Mohammed Rashid had won the 800 metres.

But then the world did not know much about Ramzi. The rest of the world started noticing him when he beat Saeed Saif Shaheen in the 1500m of the Asian championships in Manila. Shaheen, himself a Kenyan import, in Qatari colours, was taken aback a little, but hid his disappointment. This was not exactly his event; he is the master of the 3000m steeplechase.

Back to Ramzi, the athletics world had a cursory look at him early this year when he won the silver in the 800m at the World Indoors. He created quite a stir in Alger on June 24 when he clocked a new Asian record for the metric mile, at 3:31.87, bettering Mohamed Suleiman's seven-year-old 3:32.10.

Then, eight days later, in Rome, he did the unthinkable. He beat Hicham El Guerrouj, his idol since he was 12. A new Asian record of 3:30.25 was Ramzi's awe-inspiring timing. He had moved from being an average metric miler (3:39.30 in 2003) to one of the best in the business in just a few months.

And now, the 24-year-old Moroccan, in Bahrain jersey, is one of the favourites for the Olympic title if not the No. 1 favourite. It is not just because he has the world-leading time or he has beaten El Guerrouj that Ramzi is being projected as a possible champion. It is also because El Guerrouj is not in his best form and health.

Ramzi's move from Morocco to Bahrain, in 2001, was at the behest of a friend. He was in search of a job and his friend told me there was money in Bahrain, "Why don't you come over?"

Ramzi went, joined the Army, earned a salary of $750 a month and got coached by Khalid Boulami, one of the distinguished distance runners of the 90s from Morocco. Much more awaits him if he can pull it off in Athens. He had won for his adopted country its first ever gold in the Asian Games. Now he has the chance to win its first-ever Olympic gold. It is rare Asia wins anything at this level. — K. P. Mohan

MAURICE GREENE

HIS tough talking and brash attitude may have resulted in Maurice Greene's exclusion from the "popular" category among international sportspersons. But before passing judgement on this extraordinary athlete, one must bear in mind that he has achieved success in an event, which carries with it a unique blend of pressure and tension.

The 100 metres sprint is the showpiece event of any athletic championship. It contains an unusual element of drama and excitement for it is perhaps one of the briefest competitions in any sport. The protagonists have to deal with a situation that is unfamiliar to those who belong to other disciplines.

The ambitions of a lifetime, all the accompanying hopes and emotions, and several years of hard work and sacrifice, have to be brought to an ultimate fulfilment in a savage burst of energy, which will last less than 10 seconds. Within those fleeting moments, if they have not gathered all these factors together as a winning combination, then the opportunity of a lifetime will have vanished for ever.

Therefore successful sprinters are often a different breed. While coping with the demands of their unforgiving discipline, many of them develop their own quirkiness and Maurice Greene is no different.

On a purely physical level, nature seems to have made Greene specifically for sprinting. His compact and muscular frame enables him to burst out of the blocks and accelerate to top speed within the shortest possible span of time and distance. In a sport where the existing records are shaved off in miniscule fractions of a second, Greene created a sensation when he bit off the largest chunk ever taken from an earlier mark.

That was in 1999 when the record stood in the name of Canada's Donovan Bailey at 9.84 seconds. In a memorable race at Athens that year, Greene clocked 9.79 seconds. This mark remained till the present record holder Tim Montgomery brought it down to 9.78 seconds in 2002.

At the Sydney Olympics Greene was at his peak. He fulfilled his own prediction when he powered his way to a gold medal in the 100 metres (although his time of 9.87 seconds was pedestrian by his own standards). He also won a second gold as a member of the U.S. team in the 4x100 relay. But after Sydney the progress of his career became more laboured.

This year Greene qualified for the Athens Olympics by clocking 9.91 seconds at the U.S. trials. But now, at the age of 30, Greene has shed the mantle of invincibility that he wore at Sydney. Hit by injuries and lay offs, the man they call the "Kansas Cannonball" was beaten to second place at the Gaz de France competitions recently.

But followers of the sport hope that despite all his arrogance and bravado, Greene will win the title again at Athens. For, so far, Greene has retained an unsullied reputation, free of any drug scandals that have tarnished the image of many of his contemporaries and cast a shadow over the sport. If Greene wins, many fans feel it will send the right message to all those who indulge in nefarious methods to earn the right to stand on the podium. — Abhijit Sen Gupta

BERHANE ADERE

SHE knows what she wants and she is striving to be third time lucky. The long limbed Ethiopian has set her eyes on a long distance double at the Athens Olympics, and it would hardly be a surprise if and when she gets it.

Like all her compatriots she is a natural with a penchant for 5000m and the longer 10,000m although she did hold the 3000m World Indoor championship title, too, until this March.

After a disappointing appearance at the Atlanta Olympics way back in 1996 wherein she finished 18th, Berhane was expected to come on strongly at Sydney four years later. But once again the frail runner could not muster the strength to `kick' her way through the later stages and ended up a poor 12th.

"This is the best chance to heal the pain of Sydney... and the success in this Olympics at Athens will reaffirm the overall development as a track star since 2000," feels Berhane.

After some none too impressive early years, Berhane hit the spotlight when she struck silver at the Edmonton (Canada) World Championships in 2001. She won the World half marathon title the following year but her `golden' moment came in the 2003 Paris World Championships with a 30:04.18 second effort in the 10,000m, a one-two finish for Ethiopia. Teammate Kidane Werknesh (30:07.15s) came in second.

Injury worries dogged her through the last eight months and she twice lost to Britain's Paula Radcliffe and then finished second to fellow Ethiopian Meseret Defar in the 300m World Indoor Championship at Budapest in March this year. "It does not worry me. I know if I am in good health I am capable of winning any race and running fast times," she said. — Avinash Nair

PAULA RADCLIFFE

SHE is seeking glory in women's marathon. This British distance-runner is so focussed on an Olympic title that all other distractions have been blocked out, even fears of a recent shin injury. "As an athlete, I feel there is unfinished business on track," she said, referring to the 2000 Sydney Games when a 10,000m medal eluded her after setting a national mark 30:26.97. In 1996, she had to be content with fifth place.

"It is important to go on and win medals and major races. I always believed I could run a good marathon, just to be able to think at times that I'm the world's best is great." Paula believes the gruelling experience have made her tougher. "I'm a stronger person now and have more confidence. That is the big factor the marathon has brought me."

Paula has no message to convey, though the timings clocked by this linguist (degree in languages) since her marathon debut in 2002 suggests an athlete aware of the limits her body can be pushed during final preparations at Font Romeu base, putting in 160 miles each week over two sessions. The current women's marathon world record holder (2:15:25 in London 2004), she clocked the world's best in 2003 (2:17:18 at Chicago) apart from a stunning 2:18:56 in her first race ever. Her build-up has been precise, just like other career decisions taken after much thought and deliberation.

High altitude training and low media interaction have resulted in some sort of suspense over her training regime, but she has always been different from the pack. She came into limelight at the 1992 World Junior Cross-Country Championship, defeating China's Wang Junxia on a Boston course covered with snow. Front-running earned her a podium finish at the 1999 Worlds, a 10,000 silver after leading till the bell. Paula repeated the risky gambit at the 2000 Olympics, but ended fourth. The aggressive approach paid off in the 2002 London marathon, clocking the fastest time by a debutant (2:18:56).

She is equally blunt on drug abuse and shocked viewers by holding up a `EPO cheats out' placard at the 5,000m heats of Edmonton World Championships. The finger was pointed towards Russian Olga Yegerova, who was banned but re-instated on technical grounds after she tested positive for EPO (oxygen-booster). Paula's dramatic protest attracted praise and scorn but she is satisfied at just having made the point. "This is not about a witchhunt against Yegerova, but to point out to the IAAF (world athletics body) they must make testing reliable and comprehensive to restore credibility to our sport."

She pleads for a change in people's perception of athletes. "Too many people think we're all at it (performance-enhancing drugs). I don't want that to happen to my sport," she said.

The 25-year-old believes the time is right for an Olympic title, so does world men's marathon numero uno Paul Tergat. The Kenyan is tipping Paula for the women's gold after a course recce, predicting slow timings due to heat, humidity and coarse road conditions. "Athens will be the most important race of her career. She has a wealth of experience and tactical knowledge is also very sound. The Olympic Games only happen every four years and whatever you do in between, including breaking world records, is forgotten."

Outspoken and gifted, Paula is running out of patience. Maybe an Olympic gold will elevate her to `achiever' class. — Nandakumar Marar