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Out of Africa
Merrell Noden
July 22, 1996
FROM ALGERIA TO ZAMBIA, THEY LIVE TO RUN—AND TO WIN
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July 22, 1996

Out Of Africa

FROM ALGERIA TO ZAMBIA, THEY LIVE TO RUN—AND TO WIN

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Gebrselassie's 5,000 record deserves a closer look. The Ethiopian hacked an amazing 10.91 seconds off Kiptanui's two-month-old record. It was the most significant lowering of the 5,000 mark since 1932, when Laurie Lehtinen of Finland chopped 11.2 seconds off the record, dropping it to 14:17.0. In averaging 4:06.3 per mile, Gebrselassie ran progressively faster miles of approximately 4:11, 4:05 and 4:01. "I was afraid to slow down," he said. "There were 10 Kenyans in the race."

Gebrselassie's early life has much in common with that of other great African runners: altitude, a hardy lifestyle and a strong running tradition. Gebrselassie grew up in Assela, a village 9,000 feet above sea level. His father raised sheep. The family had no car and there was no school bus, so Gebrselassie and his four brothers and five sisters ran everywhere. It was nearly four miles to get water, six miles to school. Gebrselassie listened to the 1980 Olympics on the radio and still recalls countryman Miruts Yifter's victories in the 10,000 and 5,000, which Gebrselassie hopes to duplicate in Atlanta.

As it is in Ethiopia, life in many African countries is physically demanding. John Velzian, an English-born coach who has lived in Kenya since 1958, says African runners "are expected to come to terms with a harsh way of life, to accept it and to learn to live with it." When Josh Kimeto, a Kenyan distance runner who competed for Washington State in the '70s, heard a Cougar teammate complain of a sore knee one day, he said, "Pain is when you're 12 years old and they take you out in the jungle, cut off your foreskin and beat you for three days." Is any more explanation needed?

African dominance starts in the 800. You have to go back to the '84 Olympics—to Joaquim Cruz of Brazil—to find a world champion or Olympic gold medalist in this event who was not Kenyan-born. The dominance grows stronger as the distances grow longer. At 26, Morceli is already the greatest middle-distance runner in history. Before he came along, no one had ever been ranked first in the world in the 1,500 for more than three straight years; Morceli's streak is now up to six. In those six years he has won all three world titles and set five world records, at distances from 1,500 meters through 3,000. His mile record (3:44.29) disorients the veteran track fan, since it looks like a misplaced 1,500-meter time. Track & Field News has said Morceli's 3,000 record (7:25.11), set two years ago, is the metric equivalent of 7:57.60 for two miles.

If there is a stronger favorite in Atlanta than Morceli, it is Kiptanui. Like Morceli, he has won the last three world championships by huge margins. Last summer he became the first Steepler to break eight minutes, clocking 7:59.18. Incredibly, in an era in which most record attempts involve not one but two rabbits, Kiptanui requested a rabbitless race. "I didn't want anybody getting in my way," he explained. Behind Kiptanui, meanwhile, are only his countrymen. Last year Kenyan Steeplers ranked one through eight in the world.

No one dominates forever: First it was the Europeans—the Finns ruled running in the 1920s, the Swedes in the '40s and the English in the late '70s and early '80s. But the current crop of Africans seems on the verge of pushing the frontiers to where Western runners can't go, for cultural reasons as well as physical ones. "European runners might be just as fast," says Irish distance runner Frank O'Mara, "but they are not showing the same interest in doing it."

In Atlanta the African runners will show us precisely how far ahead they've run, and whether the gap is too large for us to bridge.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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