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The World Championships in Budapest are finally here at the tail end of an incredible season. With the Championships celebrating 40 years this year, here is another in a series of World Championship Magic Moments, recognising some of the great events over the last four decades of the Championships.

The Men’s 5000m of 2003 in Paris was one of the most closely-fought distance battles in the history of the World Championships and it featured three men in particular who have become icons of distance running.

Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) is one of the most renowned middle distance runners in history. He held – and still holds – the world records for the 1500m, the mile and the 2000m. He had just won his fourth consecutive 1500m title at the Paris Championships and had maintained his world-class form consistently over the previous eight seasons and had amassed a collection of major titles and records almost unparalleled in the sport.

Hicham El Guerrouj – 2004 Athens Olympics. Getty images

The only thing missing from his heavily-stacked trophy cabinet was an Olympic gold medal. He had sensationally been outkicked by Noah Ngeny in the Sydney Olympic 1500m Final and was relegated to the silver-winning position on the podium. This had, by all accounts, absolutely devastated El Guerrouj and he was determined to go to Athens in 2004 and to not only capture the 1500m crown, but he would attempt the 1500m/5000m double. With that as his ultimate goal, he would attempt the double here in Paris as a test, a ‘dry run’, as it were.

He had increased his mileage and tailored his training to accommodate the demands of  both events. He had run 12.50.24 in Ostrava two months prior to the World Championships and this was a huge confidence-booster for the 28 year-old.  El Guerrouj had proved that he – a novice at the event – was already among the world’s elite, having run a time which put him amongst the top half dozen or so 5000m runners of all time. Add to that his vastly superior 1500m speed and El Guerrouj had every reason to believe he could match it with the very best.

Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) had, at just 21, already emerged as one of the superstars of the sport. He was an immensely talented junior who broke the world 3000m record and won the World Cross Country Championships. Moving to senior competition, he was an instant success. He won the short course/long course double at the World Cross in 2002 and 2003 and had maintained his form and focus over the summer.

At the Championships, a week before the 5000m, Bekele and his countryman and idol, the legendary Haile Gebrselaisse, had staged one of the most absorbing track distance battles ever seen during the 10,000m final. It yielded a phenomenal new Championship record, with Bekele outkicking Gebrselassie in the straight to win in 26.49.57, to Gebrselaisse’s 26.50.77. As compelling a race as it was and as fast as it was, what was most remarkable about this race was that the second half was run in 12.57, which was actually faster than the Championship record for the 5000m. Bekele was clearly in red-hot form.

Eliud Kipchoge was yet another outstanding young talent from Kenya’s Rift Valley, an area which has been dubbed the world’s cradle of distance running. In 2003, the 18 year-old had won the World Junior Cross Country and had stunned the athletics world with his World Junior Record in the 5000m (12.52.61) a month or so earlier. Though he was certainly a phenomenal talent, he was, given his age and lack of experience, not considered likely to beat either Bekele or El Guerrouj.

The heats produced no real surprises, but there were a few others on the starting line of this final that were capable of some very fast times. There were three other Kenyans in the race. Richard Limo was given automatic entry as reigning champion and there was also John Kibowen and Abe Chebii, both very good cross country runners (Kibowen was a two-time short course World Champion).

Abiyote Abate and Gebregziabher Gebremariam were the two other Ethiopians. Both were superb cross country runners, who had placed highly at World Cross Country Championships and both had great track pedigree, despite their youth – Gebremariam was still only 18.

Another future legend of the sport in the race was the Eritrean Zersenay Tadese. He was just 21, but already developing into a very good athlete. Juan Carlos de la Ossa (ESP), Abderrahim Goumri (MAR), Christian Belz (SUI), Moukheld Al-Qutaibi (KSA) and Jorge Torres (USA) made up the rest of this very strong 15 man field.

The Race:

On the 31st of August, the athletes took their place on the starting line of this eagerly awaited distance classic. From the gun, Bekele took it out at a very solid clip (61 second laps), with this class field already stretched out in single file. Bekele went through 2000m in 5.07.27 (around 12.48 pace), but then took his foot off the gas a little, with subsequent laps of around 62 – 64 seconds.

At 3000m (7.45.44), Kipchoge took over, but kept the pace going at a relatively sedate 64 second clip, with the breakaway group of about eight beginning to bunch up a little. All this time, El Guerrouj had followed the pace, sitting just a few metres off the lead, looking very comfortable.

Coming down the home straight with 2 laps to go, El Guerrouj made a move. He took the lead and began to lift the pace, with Bekele and Kipchoge responding and tracking the Moroccan closely.

At the bell (11.59.27), Kipchoge moved up on El Guerrouj and applied some pressure. With 300m to go, El Guerrouj was really moving. He had a gap of about 2 metres on Kipchoge, with Bekele right with the young Kenyan. Kibowen was just hanging on by a thread.

At the top  of the final bend with about 150m to go, El Guerrouj still had a 2 metre lead, but Kipchoge and Bekele were closing fast.

Into the straight, Kipchoge loomed up on the Moroccan, with Bekele moving wide and making ground on Kipchoge and El Guerrouj. Kipchoge, at full tilt, was slightly edging ahead, with Bekele flat out, but losing touch. El Guerrouj made one last desperate lunge at Kipchoge, but to no avail. Eliud Kipchoge had won his first major senior global title by just 0.04 of a second (12.52.79 to 12.52.83). Bekele, who had made most of the running, was just a couple of metres behind in third (12.53.12). Kibowen had run well for fourth (12.54.07). Kipchoge covered the last lap in a little over 53 seconds, with the final 800m run in about 1.53.

This was one of the greatest distance running championship races ever seen. The three medallists would go on to further honours, with many world records and championship wins, and establish themselves as all-time icons of the sport.

As mentioned, El Guerrouj would win an historic 1500m/5000m at the 2004 Athens Olympics, emulating the legendary Finn, Paavo Nurmi. Hampered by ongoing injury problems, he retired in 2006 after a glorious career. He finished his career with four World Championship gold medals, two Olympic gold medals, two World Championship silvers and an Olympic silver medal. He also still holds three world records. He retired in 2006 after a difficult year and a half battling recurring injuries. He has been involved with the Moroccan Olympic Committee as well as a few charities, and he is a UNICEF ambassador.

Eliud Kipchoge won the bronze in the 5000m in Athens the following year. He became a consistently high-level performer on the track,  focusing mostly at the 5000m. He won the 5000m silver in Beijing in 2008, and picked up another silver in the 5000m at the Osaka World Championships in 2007. There was also a Commonwealth 5000m silver in Delhi, as well as a World Indoor bronze over 3000m in Moscow in 2006.

Kipchoge also posted incredible times on the track and road. He ran a 3.50.40 mile, a 7.27.66 3000m, a 12.46.53 5000m and a 26.49.02 10,000m. He slowly began to shift his focus to the roads in the early 2010s. He posted a road 5km of 13.11 – one of the fastest ever – on the famous Carlsbad 5km. He ran the second-fastest half marathon debut of 59.25 in Lille in 2012.

He made his marathon debut in 2013 and soon became the greatest marathon runner of all time. His debut was a win in Hamburg in 2.05.30 and he finished 2 minutes ahead of the rest of the field. He was second in Berlin that year and was second in 2.04.05.

Eliud Kipchoge on his way to breaking the 2 hour mark

He won London and Berlin in 2015 and in 2016, he won London in the second fastest of all time (2.03.05) and dominated the Rio Olympic Marathon, beating Feyisa Lilesa (ETH) and Galen Rupp (USA) and his margin of victory (1 minute 10 seconds) was the largest since 1972.

In 2017, he attempted the first sub 2 hour marathon, in the Nike Breaking2 Project , but fell short (finishing in 2.00.25). He achieved this historic goal of a sub-2 hour marathon in the INEOS Challenge in Vienna in 2019, when a rotating group of pacers led the great man through to a spectacular 1.59.42 finishing time – an average pace of just over 2.50 per kilometre – a mind-blowing achievement. The time, though, is not ratified as an official world record, as it violated World Athletics rules regarding pacing.

In addition to his two Olympic golds in the marathon (he won again in Tokyo 2021), he has won 10 World Marathon Majors (four wins in Berlin) and his world record at Berlin last year (2.01.09), at the age of 37, may have been his greatest achievement yet. At 38, he is still not done. Though he has suffered a drop off in form in recent races, and he faces several emerging young challengers – Kelvin Kiptum chief among them –  one can never write off the champion.We await Berlin next month and the Paris Olympic Games next year next year to see what the greatest marathon runner of all time has in store for us.
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Of the three superstars who won medals in the 2003 World Championship 5000m Final, Kenenisa Bekele is probably the greatest. In fact, Bekele could legitimately lay claim to being the greatest male distance runner of all time.

In subsequent years Bekele dominated races on the track, over cross country and he eventually moved to the roads, where he was equally brilliant. Between 2002 and 2006, Bekele won five consecutive World Cross Country long course and short course doubles. He also won another championship in the long course in 2008, establishing him as unequivocally the greatest cross country runner in history. The only athletes to come close to Bekele’s record are Kenyans John Ngugi and Paul Tergat, who have five World Cross titles each.

Kenenisa Bekele Wins The 2016 Berlin Marathon. Credit: www.photorun.net

On the track, he established long-standing world records over the 5000m (12.37.35 in 2004) and 10,000m (26.17.53 in 2005, having run 26.20.31 in 2004) as well as 2000m, 2 mile and 5000m records indoors. At the Olympics he won gold in the 10,000m (27.05.10) and silver in the 5000m (13.14.59) in Athens in 2004. At Beijing, he produced probably the finest 5000m/10,000m double in Olympic history, where he emulated his countryman Miruts Yifter. He ran Olympic records in both races and was dominant in both. His spectacular finishing kick left his opponents in the dust, and he jogged the last 20m, but still covered the last lap in 53.42. His 5000m  was even better. After a slow opening 3000m, Bekele took control and put together a series of laps of 60-61 seconds, stretching the field and with a last lap of 53.87 and final 2000m of 4.56.97, he destroyed athletes the calibre of Kipchoge and Bernard Lagat (USA), winning by 30m from Kipchoge

He ran another double at Berlin in 2009 at the World Championships, but was unable to match Mo Farah on his home track in London 2012 and finished 4th in the 10,000m.

Bekele then turned his attention to the marathon and within a couple of years of his debut, began to produce some of the greatest performances of all time. In his debut in Paris in 2014, he won in 2.05.04 and he was close to the world record (2.03.03) when he won in Berlin a couple of years later. He produced one of his great career performances – one of the greatest distance running performances of all time – when he returned to Berlin in 2019 and came within 2 seconds of Kipchoge’s world record, running 2.01.41 at the age of 37. He is the third fastest man of all time, behind Kipchoge and Kiptum. He has continued in the sport and has run a world M40 Masters record marathon with his 2.05.53 in London last year.

The 2003 World Championship 5000m Final was one of the most significant in the sport. Not only was it a classic race, but it had one legend of the sport stepping out of his comfort zone and taking on another challenge and it showcased the talents of two young men who would go on to become megastars, role models to a generation of young athletes and would achieve more than any other athletes in the history of the sport.

World Championships in Athletics – Paris, 2003:
 
Men’s 5000m Final:
 
1. Eliud Kipchoge (KEN) 12.52.79
2. Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) 12.53.83
3. Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 12.53.12
4. John Kibowen (KEN) 12.54.07
5. Abraham Chebii (KEN) 12.57.74
6. Gebregziabher Gebremariam (ETH) 12.58.08
7. Richard Limo (KEN) 13.01.13
8. Zersenay Tadese 13.05.57
9. Juan Carlos de la Ossa (ESP) 13.21.04
10. Abderrahim Goumri (MAR) 13.23.67
11. Abiyote Abate (ETH) 13.23.81
12. Alejandro Suarez (MEX) 13.24.51
13. Christian Belz (SUI) 13.26.02
14. Moukheld Al-Outaibi 13.38.92
15. Jorge Torres (USA) 13.43.37
The author would like to thank the BBC, World Athletics, Athletics Weekly online and Track and Field News. 
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