Eritrea’s Tadesse tells of epic duel with ace Bekele in Mombasa

Published on 08/06/2009

By David Ochami

Two and a quarter years after Eritrea’s most celebrated athlete, Zersenay Tadesse beat Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele at the 2007 World Cross country Championship in Mombasa, the two have not met to discuss their epic duel.

Neither has the Eritrean, who believes supportive Kenyan crowds spurred him to victory, found an adequate explanation for Kenenisa’s spectacular capitulation.

The diminutive Eritrean, whose fame in his motherland has been equated to David Beckham’s in England, soared after winning a bronze medal in 10,000m at the 2,004 Olympics in Athens and rose to new heights after Tadesse defeated the Ethiopian multiple record holder for whom he reserves tremendous respect.

“I have become a role model for Eritreans,” said Tadesse in Asmara, referring to his younger brothers Kidane, Maekele and Merhawi who, among others, have taken to athletics and occasionally accompany him on workouts outside Asmara Cemetery.

‘Most hostile race’

“We did not have an occasion to talk about anything,” he said, referring to his attempts to speak to the frustrated Ethiopian after the Mombasa race, which he termed ‘the most hostile race I have ever run.’

Although Tadesse came to Mombasa to win, he did not expect to defeat the Ethiopian despite much pre-race training.

“Defeating some of the greatest athletes was something I did not expect,” he confessed.

Held under sweltering coastal temperatures, the World Cross country Championship in Mombasa was a catastrophe for many local and foreign athletes who had neither practised nor run at sea level. Besides the sandy terrain, many suffered dehydration and reduction amid reports of one death.

Totally destroyed

It was alleged the Ethiopian developed stomach crumps after swallowing water but all Tadesse remembers is that Bekele was totally destroyed as he prepared to capitulate amid howling from Kenyan crowds. Initially, Tadese did not know whom the Kenyan fans were crying out for until he ran passed the Ethiopian who has destroyed every record set by Kenyans.

“When the Kenyans discovered it was me (leading) they began supporting me. The Kenyan crowd became part of my win that day. They wanted me to win because of the rivalry between Kenya and Ethiopia.”

Before the race, he trained hard in and around Asmara at an altitude of about 2000 feet and at the Eritrean coast but was still not well prepared as the hundreds of competitors in the men’s senior race blasted from the start. At the last stages, Bekele led but suddenly reduced speed. Tadesse then blasted past his opponent after suspecting he had run out of gas.

“When I found out he was tired and I had some energy I made a kick. I realised he had had his last breath”

At the end of the race, the Eritrean claims they never met with Bekele. Apparently, the Ethiopian had stormed from the venue.

“We did not have an occasion to talk about anything. I do not know why. He might have been crying.”

They met briefly at a cross-country meet in Scotland, says Tadesse, who has since moved to marathon races and has immense respect for Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes.

Born at Adi Bana in Eritrea’s Debarwo region in 1992 Tadesse become a runner by accident, spurred by the hardship of village life and admiration of his country’s past athletes like Tecle Mengistaeb.

His father bought him a racing bicycle in 2002 and he moved to Mendefera, about 15 kilometres from Debarwo to foster his ambition but was halted after two years by a prohibition order by the regional cycling authorities in Mendefera who wanted him to race in Debarwo.

Ran 6km everyday

Frustrated ” I began racing in 2002 after the clash between the two cycling zones,” said Zerisaney who now lives with his wife and extended family in Asmara. Before Mendefera, he played football and ran 6km to school everyday. He began competing for his school on a teacher’s order representing Debarwa sub-zone, graduating in four months from 3km to 12km races.

In 2002, he took part in the Massawa Half Marathon and came second to Yonas Kifle, one of Eritrea’s most celebrated athletes. His maiden international race was at the 2002 World Cross Country Championship in Dublin, finishing 30th. He was frightened when the race was started with a gunshot.

He then caught the attention of a Spanish manager and proceeded on a professional career. He was ninth at the 2003 World Cross country Championships in Lausanne and sixth in Brussels in 2004 before coming second in Etienne, France, in 2005. He also emerged fourth in Fukuoka, Japan in 2006 and took gold in 10,000m at 2007 All Africa Games in Algiers.

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