25 Years Ago Today: The 5K’s First Indoor Sub-13

Although his race form in Stockholm was WR sharp and the finest he has ever shown indoors, Gebrselassie’s pokes at reporters were gentle. (SIEG LINDSTROM)

AMID THE SHOES & TRACKS rewrite of the all-time lists we’re watching currently, sub-13:00 for the indoor 5000, while head-scratching quick, ain’t what it was a quarter century ago. On February 20, 1997, though, all-time great Haile Gebrselassie’s race through the barrier was a performance to marvel at. T&FN managing editor Sieg Lindstrom was on the spot in Stockholm’s Globe arena, the world’s largest spherical building, to write up the history-making run.

A 5000 WORLD RECORD — Gebrselassie 12:59.04

by Sieg Lindstrom

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN, FEBRUARY 20 — As Haile Gebrselassie sees it, there’s more than one kind of World Record in this world.

Planning an attempt on his own indoor 5000 standard of 13:10.98 at the DN Galan meet, Stockholm’s fixture on the Ricoh Indoor Tour, the 23-year-old Ethiopian told himself beforehand, “There’s a big difference between under 13:00 and the World Record. If I run 13:09, it’s a World Record. But if I run under 13:00, it’s quite a bit different.”

And so Gebrselassie let it roll starting with the first of the 25 laps he would take around the Globe arena’s banked 200m track and cracked the 13:00 barrier with a 12:59.04 race of effortless-appearing beauty.

“If people hear about this record,” he told reporters, “I’m sure it will be a surprise for everybody. Maybe not a surprise for you or for the people here because they have seen all the race. But for other people, a big surprise, I’m sure.”

And truly it was even for those present — if that’s possible from a runner with 26:43.53 and 12:44.39 PRs outdoors plus 3:32.39 for 1500 indoors this season. The 5-3/119 Gebrselassie amazed with his apparent ease — the relaxed, even stride, the seemingly never absent smile.

Think of Johan Swärdh, the young runner in the race who was still pushing toward a 14:15.09 Swedish Record when Gebrselassie finished his flag-waving victory lap with just 13:57 on the clock. Think he wasn’t surprised?

Even the world class group of Jason Bunston (13:25.87), Eliud Barngetuny (13:27.62), Richard Kosgei (13:28.79), Philip Mosima (13:33.73) and Jonah Kiptarus (13:44.60) were left out of the Ethiopian’s orbit in the race, although Barngetuny notably participated in the record with an elbow-swinging refusal to yield to Gebrselassie as he was lapped at the end.

The first 200 went in 30.5, lap 2 (his slowest of the race) in 31.8 behind rabbit Peter Stubbs, Gebrselassie was already 2.0 up on the pace he’d set in his record race at Stuttgart last year.

By now a throng of Stockholm-resident Ethiopians was erupting with cheers in a corner of the second-level seats above the first turn. They sported Gebrselassie’s own trademark, the broad smile, and their enthusiasm spread to the less demonstrative Swedes.

Stubbs stepped aside at 1000m — at which juncture Gebrselassie split 2:37.32 — and Croatia’s Branko Zorko took up the hare’s chores. From 600m until a lap to go, Gebrselassie’s advantage over his Stuttgart figures only grew.

By the time Zorko gave way at 2400m, the margin stood at 5.7 seconds, and Gebrselassie never looked in danger of tiring in the remaining 13 laps. With a lap to go, he was 12.1 ahead of Stuttgart’s tempo.

With the record well in hand, he split “just” 30.4 for his final circuit. If not for the barrier put up by Barngetuny the record might be lower still. Not that Gebrselassie complained.

Calling it “a perfect race,” he added, “This track was perfect for me. It was special-made for Haile.” He then laughed at the thought.

His win in the Olympic 10,000 last summer elevated Gebrselassie to an icon of the Abebe Bikila variety in Ethiopia. The gold medal feat prompted an emotional celebration in the capital, Addis Ababa, upon his return.

“I cannot say anything about that because it was incredible,” he said in his improving English. “When we arrived in Addis, there were almost 1 million people on the street, from the airport, through the whole main city up to the stadium. You couldn’t believe it even when you were there. We went through the whole city in an open car. How can I tell you about that? I have not any words about that.”

Gebrselassie has given his gift to Ethiopia as a nation. Now he takes pleasure in sharing it with individuals when he can — and quite likely he wants to send a message to rivals Daniel Komen and Salah Hissou as well. In snowy Stockholm, he warmed the hearts of expatriates far from home.

“Yesterday, and today too,” he said, “many Ethiopian people telephoned my hotel room. I don’t know where they got this telephone number. They don’t see me many times here and they wanted to see something from this race. I had to achieve something.”

Gebrselassie had declined to predict a record before the race. Afterwards he smiled patiently at Swedish reporters and explained, “I told you already, but it is not our tradition that we say something before the race. It’s not necessary to say I will break. We can just say, ‘I will compete good and I will run a very good race.’ That’s enough.”

When Gebrselassie won his second world champion’s Mercedes-Benz in Göteborg in ‘95, reporters stretched out marathons of mileage over his owning two cars but no driver’s license.

Now Gebrselassie has his license, and in Stockholm he chose to gently strike back at a reporter who asked if he would spend his $20,000 record bonus on a car. “Oh, by the way, I ask you this question,” he said. “What do you do with your money?”

Reporter: “Spend it.”

Gebrselassie: “Yeah, me too. I have many workers around me. I have a trainer, I have a family [including new wife Alem], I have people around me. Everybody gets something.” ◻︎

5000: 1. Gebrselassle (Eth) 12:59.04 WR (old WR 13:10.98 Gebrselassie ’96) (only 10 men have run faster outdoors)
(30.5, 31.8 [62.3], 31.7 [1:34.0], 31.7 [2:05.7], 31.6 [2:37.32],
30.9 [3:08.2], 30.7 [3:38.9], 31.2 [4:10.1], 31.2 [4:41.3], 31.4 [5:12.71],
31.4 [5:44.1], 31.4 [6:15.5], 31.7 [6:47.2], 30.9 [7:18.1], 30.7 [7:48.81],
31.2 [8:20.0], 31.4 [8:51.4], 31.0 [9:22.4], 31.5 [9:53.9], 31.3 [10:25.23],
31.3 [10:56.5], 31.3 [11:27.8], 31.0 [11:58.8], 29.9 [12:28.7], 30.3)
(2:37.32, 2:35.39 [5:12.71], 2:36.10 [7:48 .81], 2:36.42 [10:25.23], 2:33.81 ) (victory lap with flag: 58.1);
2. Bunston (Can) 13:25.87 NR; 3 . Barngetuny (Ken) 13:27.62 NR; 4. R. Kosgei (Ken) 13:28.79; 5. Mosima (Ken) 13:33.73; 6. Kiptarus (Ken) 13:44.60.