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Bekele gives boost to next generation

TODAY will be a lucky Friday the 13th for some young Irish athletes, as Ethiopian long-distance superstar Kenenisa Bekele is making a surprise visit to one juvenile club in Leinster this afternoon.

The man regarded as the Usain Bolt of distance-running will have some of his four Olympic medals with him for inspection, in what should be an inspirational visit for Ireland's aspiring young runners.

Ethiopia's World and Olympic 5,000/10,000m champion and world record holder is in Ireland to run in Sunday's Spar Great Ireland Run in the Phoenix Park. Bekele was a relative unknown, aged 19, when he first came to Ireland 10 years ago to compete in the World Cross-Country Championships.

The diminutive superstar gave notice of his enormous talent by winning both the long and short course races in Leopardstown -- the first man to do that double, which he subsequently repeated four times.

boundaries

A shy character who hasn't captured the media spotlight like his more outgoing hero Haile Gebrselassie, Bekele has pushed the boundaries of distance-running in the past decade.

He was unbeatable from 2004 to '09, but since then he has been troubled by injury, dropping out of last year's World Championships despite running the fastest 10,000m of year (26:43) in Brussels a month later.

Bekele looked out of sorts in the Edinburgh Cross-Country in the new year in what was his only race since, so there is massive interest in his form, especially as he has vowed to defend his Olympic titles this summer.

The fact that Bekele has entered the 3,000m in the first Diamond League meeting at Doha next month indicates he's in decent shape, but Spain's Jesus Espana and Ayad Lamdassem, Italy's Daniele Meucci and Ireland's Olympic-bound marathoner Mark Kenneally (second in this event in 2006), will be throwing down the gauntlet.

Espana, the European 5,000m silver medallist, won in the Park last year, while Lamdassem, who was disappointed with his marathon debut of 2:14 in Japan last month, was runner-up at the last two European Cross-Countries.

Meucci was one of those who ran Lamdassem out of a 10,000m medal at the last European track championships, and Kenneally reckons the European bronze medallist could be the dark horse of the race, which has live television coverage on RTE 2 (1.0).

Last year's winner Charlotte Purdue and runner-up Gemma Steele lead a strong British challenge in the women's race that also includes Helen Clitheroe and all three of Ireland's Olympic marathon qualifiers: Linda Byrne, Maria McCambridge and Ava Hutchinson.

The race also doubles up as the national 10km road championship, so expect cross-country champion Eddie McGinley (Annadale), Sean Hehir (Rathfarnam) and Dunleer's Martin Quinn to challenge Kenneally for that.

This is a huge weekend too for Irish athletes hoping to secure the Olympic marathon qualifying standard.

Cork's Alan O'Shea and Raheny's Lorraine Manning aim for it in Paris, while Sean Connolly, Gary Thornton, Gary O'Hanlon, Tomas Frazier, Gladys Ganiel, Catriona Jennings, Lizzie Lee, Rosie Ryan and Breege Connolly are all racing in Rotterdam.

Ireland's top walkers, Olive Loughnane and Robert Heffernan, are also in action in a high-quality 20km in Portugal tomorrow, looking to improve on their season's bests of 92:26 and 80:39 from Lugano last month.

• Late entries for the Great Ireland Run will be accepted at Lifestyle Sport, Blanchardstown, today (12.0-7.0) and tomorrow (10.0-4.0).

Irish Independent