If ever an athlete is showing all the signs of living up to his name, it is Telahun Haile Bekele.
Sharing the name of not one but two running Ethiopian icons in Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, it was perhaps always the destiny of the 20-year-old that he would one day run.
And after Bekele won a thrilling 5000m race at last month’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome in a world-leading 12:52.98, he appears armed with the basic tools to one day have a half-decent stab at emulating the feats of two athletes who share five Olympic gold medals between them.
“I realised before I started running my name included that of two running legends,” explains Bekele. “I used to hear their names on television, so I used to dream that one day I’ll become like them because of their names. Yet my No.1 role model is Abebe Bikila (the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia). I grew up hearing of his story. He has proved a strong inspiration on my running career.”
From taekwondo to the track
Born and raised in the Southern Ethiopian district of Gurage – about 250km south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa – Bekele grew up in a rural community with four brothers and one sister.
“My parents were farmers, although I didn’t practice farming,” explains Bekele. “My parents didn’t allow me to help them in farming; rather they encouraged me to focus on my education.”
His first sport was taekwondo but after his coach relocated to another area, Bekele sought an alternative outlet for his youthful exuberance.
A PE teacher recognised the youngster’s potential as a runner and selected Bekele to compete for the school in a local competition. He performed admirably, placing fourth in the 800m and third in the 1500m and was instantly hooked.
“After that race is when I began to see my future as a runner,” says Bekele.
From 2015 he started formal training under the guidance of Assefa Gadisa and two years later earned a major breakthrough when finishing second in the 5000m at the Ethiopian Championships in a PB of 13:44.9.
“To run such a time at the Ethiopian Championships was very good for me,” he says. “It gave me more energy and made me believe I could do so much more. That result made me think much more ambitiously.”
Shortly after, he started working with national team coach Hussein Shibo, and Bekele’s career continued on its eye-catching trajectory.
Diligently pursuing Shibo’s training regime and training alongside world 5000m champion Muktar Edris, Diamond League champion Selemon Barega and Hagos Gebrhiwet has proved a potent combination.
Towards the end of 2017 Bekele ran an impressive 27:53 to place third in a 10km road race in Berlin and his progress continued the following year with a second-place finish behind Jacob Kiplimo, the world cross-country silver medallist, at the historic Cinque Mulini cross country race.
The 2018 track season provided another step forward. In Ostrava he raced to a 3000m PB of 7:38.55, then a 5000m victory in a lifetime best time of 13:04.63 in Huelva provided the perfect springboard for the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018.
However, Bekele, who went into the competition the second fastest on paper behind defending champion Barega, had to settle for fifth (13:23.24) in a high-class race won by Kenya’s Edward Zakayo in 13:20.16.
“My expectation was to win but the warm conditions were difficult for me,” he says. “But my performance was good and it was a memorable experience.”
With the benefit of an extra year’s training behind him, Bekele opened his 2019 track campaign with a bang; clinching the Ethiopian 5000m title in a time of 13:36.4.
In his next outing in Shanghai he placed a solid fifth in the 5000m – behind Yomif Kejelcha – but despite producing a solid display in China he believed there was much more to deliver.
“I knew I had the ability and talent to do better, I just needed to keep working hard.”
He did not have long to wait. In a captivating 5000m in Rome, Bekele produced a powerful late surge to edge ahead of Barega, his training partner, on the inside and snatch a memorable victory by just 0.06 in a world-leading 12:52.98.
“I was not confident of the victory until the very end,” he recalls. “But I pushed myself hard with all my energy to beat him. I was so happy. Selemon is such a talented and strong athlete.”
Bekele also caught the attention of many with his quirky post-race celebration in which he cups his hand around his opposite elbow – in effort to mimic a camera following his fans – and for his arms to form an elaborate T shape to highlight his first initial.
“My unusual post-race celebration is an indication of my happiness,” he explains. I’m expressing my emotions and entertaining my supporters.”
He followed up his thrilling win in the Olympic Stadium by racing to 5000m victory in 12:57.56 in Hengelo and can now turn his hand confidently to the rest of the season, where he has set himself some big ambitions.
“My hope is to run at the World Championships (5000m) and win the race with a good time,” he says. “I hope in the future running will allow me to not only change myself but also my community and county.
“This is just the beginning and not the end,” he adds, “a small part of my journey on to greater success.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF