In sporting terms it’s a rivalry to match any in athletics. In human terms it’s a friendship that stretches beyond sport and across national boundaries.
Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, two of the greatest distance runners of all time, will clash for the 26th time on Sunday as they bid to claim their first Flora London Marathon titles after more than a decade of personal battles at the very highest levels of cross country, track and road racing.
Gebrselassie, the multi-Olympic and world champion at 10,000m, and Tergat, five-time world cross country champion and the world marathon record holder, first met at the world cross country championships in March 1993. On Sunday, 14 years, numerous championships and a brace of world class road races later, they will meet for the first time in five years with the Ethiopian holding a 22-3 lead over his closest opponent and great friend.
“I think our rivalry has been good for the sport,” reflected the 37-year-old Kenyan today as he and Gebrselassie looked back at their enduring rivalry and ahead to assess their prospects for Sunday’s race.
“It comes from big championships where we were carrying our country’s flags. We happened to come along at the same time, but now it’s almost like we are not rivals at all. Perhaps that was our time.”
The smiling Gebreselassie could only agree with his friend. “These days we try to help each other because there are others trying to attack these old men,” laughed the 34-year-old, knowing that an array of younger and hugely talented runners will line-up to test them at the start of Sunday’s race.
“Now we come together and we have to fight somebody else. I am still motivated by the younger athletes. They push me to do a lot more.
“Paul is a friend and when we meet each other it’s great. One thing we both understand - this is sport. Sport is about showing your ability and effort. But outside of sport, why fight? We don’t need it.”
The friendship between these two great east African runners is clearly genuine. But, whatever they say, once the racing shoes are on there is obviously still a keen rivalry. Tergat set the current world record of 2:04:55 in 2003 and it’s no secret that Gebrselassie would love to claim it.
He came close last September when he won the Berlin Marathon in 2:05:56, the fastest time of the year. Indeed, despite his two Olympic titles and four world championship gold medals, Gebrselassie admitted he continues to find inspiration in his old rival.
“I look at Paul and I say I want to attack the world record. But then I know he will be back next year to try again,” he said. “It was because of Paul and the other Kenyans that I could break many records on the track. Without them I couldn’t have done it. It’s a wonderful thing; it’s what keeps you hungry.
“When I see Paul, I see I still have three years ahead. I see him so strong and know I have a chance.”
Indeed, the Ethiopian’s dominance of their head-to-head statistics is hardly a reflection of the paper thin margins that so often separated them on the track, with Gebrselassie edging Tergat into second place no fewer than 10 times – most memorably in the 10,000m final at the Sydney Olympics when the Ethiopian’s margin of victory was just nine hundredths of a second.
Since then they have met just twice, the last time in a spectacular showdown at the 2002 London Marathon when Tergat beat Gebreselassie in a sprint down the Mall only to be eclipsed by the world record breaking finish of USA’s Khalid Khannouchi.
“I ran 2:05 and was still unable to win,” recalled Tergat. That experience, and Tergat’s last minute withdrawal from last year’s race with a calf injury, has given the Kenyan extra motivation to win this year.
“I really want to win this time,” he said. “I am very excited that this time around I will be able to make the start line. I’m healthy and in good shape. I am always excited when I come to London and to win this event is one of the main dreams of all top athletes. But anything can happen in a marathon, look at Haile last year.”
If Tergat’s disappointment last year provides an extra spur for the Kenyan, the same is true for Gebrselassie who suffered dramatically in the cold and wet at the closing stages of last year’s race and slipped from the leading pack to finish ninth.
“Last year was dreadful,” he said. “This year I am sure will be very good. Unlike previous years I stopped doing shorter distances like the 10km and half marathons. Now I am focused just on the marathon.
“I sat here last year and told you I was in very good condition – really my preparation was perfect. But you have to have the right day in the marathon. Sunday looks like it could be my day, but it could be Paul’s day too.”
In fact, with reigning champion Felix Limo, the world champion Jaouad Gharib and the Olympic champion Stefano Baldini in the field, it could be a day that belongs to someone else entirely.
For most distance fans, however, if the finish to Sunday’s race in London’s Mall brought one more battle royal between Tergat and Gebrselassie it would be a stirring, and fitting, reprise for one of the greatest rivalries in sport.