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For Bekele, Lion of Ethiopia, a Nation Shares Its Sorrow

After a Year of Running Triumphs, He Endures the Death of His Fiancee

By Sabrina Yohannes
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page D03

Last September, Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele was celebrating a spectacular year, in his running career and in his life. He had won two Olympic medals in Athens -- gold in the 10,000 meters and silver in the 5,000 -- and shattered three world records set by his legendary countryman Haile Gebrselassie. He had won both races at the world cross-country championships for an unprecedented third consecutive year. He was the subject of a hit song, "Anbessa" -- meaning "Lion" in the Amharic language. And he was engaged.

When world track's governing body crowned Bekele, 22, the male athlete of the year in a glittering ceremony and gala dinner in Monaco, he looked radiant in a traditional Ethiopian outfit. Nearby sat Bekele's proud fiancee and sometime training partner, Alem Techale, the world youth champion in the 1,500.

At the mention of the March 2005 world cross-country championships, his next major competition, a smile tugged at Bekele's lips. "I don't think I could resist going for a fourth double," he said. He had no way of knowing what he would go through first.

Bekele and Techale, who were from the eastern region of Arsi, had lived together for over a year and last summer in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, the couple decided to marry in 2005. "We will grow together," said Bekele in Athens.

On Jan. 4, about 10 minutes into one of the couple's training runs in the Ararat forest on the outskirts of the capital, Bekele, who had briefly run ahead at his faster pace, rejoined Techale. "I found her unable to run, and struggling to stand, holding onto a tree," he said in an interview in Boston later that month. "Alem, what's wrong?" he asked her. She said she was in pain and, perhaps sensing the situation was grave, asked him to pray for her. She struggled to breathe, and then stopped altogether.

He screamed and two nearby runners helped get her closer to Bekele's car. He then sprinted to get it and drove to the hospital, but she couldn't be revived.

Techale, 18, was buried in her home town of Asela the next day. The cause of death was thought to be heart failure.

Bekele was devastated.

"A wife, a partner is someone who is everything to you, someone with whom you become one person," he said. "She died so young, missing out on so much joy. Every day I feel it all over again."

Following Ethiopian mourning customs that are rarely adhered to by the young, he shaved his head, and also grew a beard. Turning to his Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, he prayed for Techale and for comfort and later observed the Lenten ritual of abstaining from meat and dairy products, something few athletes in heavy training do.

Bekele interrupted his training and canceled a race. He wondered whether he could attempt his fourth straight sweep of the 4-kilometer and 12-kilometer titles at the world cross-country championships in March, the event that had first signaled his greatness in 2002 and had meant so much to him months earlier.

Resuming training proved difficult. "Wherever I go, the memories stay with me," he said.

He would soon discover how much his nation and the track world had taken him into their hearts as people flocked to his side at home, and condolences poured in from abroad. His Olympic 10,000 victory, during which he had slowed midrace to wait for the injured Gebrselassie, had especially endeared Bekele to Ethiopians everywhere.

Tamagne Beyene, an Ethiopian entertainer in Alexandria, promised Bekele that if he chose to compete in a 3,000-meter race in Boston on Jan. 29, Beyene and others would fly there for support.


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