VIEWPOINT
Death of Kenenisa's fiancée a shock for Ethiopians
By Steven Downes (Scotsman.com) Jan 9, 2005
Media reports on death of Kenenisa Bekele's fiancee
IN THE midst of so much tragedy, the death of another teenager this week passed by almost unnoticed. Yet the girl who died was a world champion runner, aged only 18, who inexplicably dropped dead while on a routine training run with her fiancee.

Alem Techale was expected to be the next great distance talent off the Ethiopian production line. Two years ago, she won the world youth title at 1500m. In three months’ time, she was to marry her boyfriend, Kenenisa Bekele, probably the greatest distance runner of the moment, who has an Olympic gold medal and world records at 5,000m and 10,000m to prove it.

Bekele himself is only 22, but he is already a seven-time cross-country world champion. He was due to be the star turn in the televised Edinburgh cross-country international next weekend, though now his participation is in doubt, as he is understandably grief-stricken.

The circumstances of Techale’s death will have affected him deeply. The couple were out for a run in Ararat, a forest in a hilly area on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, on Tuesday morning when Techale collapsed. Bekele carried her to his car, but she died before they managed to get to hospital.

Her death has been ascribed in some reports to a heart attack, although despite the sudden circumstances of her demise, no postmortem was conducted before her burial on Wednesday - as autopsies remain uncommon, even among the Addis Ababa elite.

Thus, no-one will ever know the real cause of death of an otherwise apparently fit and healthy young woman.

There have been prominent "running deaths" in the past, most notably the American author Jim Fixx, who did so much to popularise jogging in the US until he keeled over on a run one day. But Fixx was in his fifties by the time he died and was also known to suffer from a congenital heart weakness.

"Techale had told some close friends about a month ago that she was suffering from some health problem. But it was never checked out," said Richard Nerurkar, the former British international runner who is an aid worker in Addis.

"There have been other cases in Ethiopia of relatively young, fit athletes dying suddenly, just as in the case of the Cameroonian footballer, Marc-Vivien Foe," Nerurkar said. "This might be something similar."

We may never know. Techale’s death has shocked Ethiopia, according to Amare Aregawi, editor of the English language daily, The Reporter. "When I heard the news with my family, we couldn’t believe it," Aregawi said. "When you look at pictures of her face it is amazing to think that she died.

"Everyone in Ethiopia was acquainted with her. When Kenenisa got his medal and posed for pictures she was with him. She was interviewed on television. We interviewed her and took her picture."

The absence of a postmortem has helped fuel speculation over Techale’s death. "People have started to speculate. There are always conspiracy theories in Ethiopia," Aregawi said. "We have very Shakespearean minds.

"People have started to say - how could she be running and then just die? But there is nothing behind these conspiracies. They are saying things like ‘maybe someone put something in her drink’. But there is nothing to back it up."

Aregawi repeats a phrase that has often been used in the past whenever the prodigious feats of some Kenyan runners have been questioned. "These runners, they come from rural areas," he said. "They don’t have an acquaintance with drugs like aspirin, let alone more serious drugs."

Which would be entirely true, were it not for the fact that Techale was very much part of Ethiopia’s running elite, who, together with Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie, spend half the year training at altitude in modest surroundings in their home country, but for the rest of the time are globetrotting professionals based in Holland near the offices of agent Jos Hermens, and receive all the physiological and medical back-up they need.

One expert who she is known to have used, is one of the most famous sports medicine experts in the world, Dr Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt, a Munich-based specialist. Reports from Ethiopia this week suggested that she had consulted him as recently as last September for knee and calf injuries, including treatment to a troublesome achille’s tendon problem.

Dr Mueller-Wohlfahrt has a worldwide reputation in sport, not only for a client list that has included Boris Becker, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Linford Christie, but also because of his somewhat extraordinary homeopathic remedies.

When Scotland defender Dominic Matteo’s knees began to creak too much, a flying visit to Mueller-Wohlfahrt’s Munich clinic saw him injected with juices from a turkey’s head. Others have reported how they have been given injections of enzymes and amino acid drawn from the foetuses of calves.

But many of Dr Mueller-Wohlfahrt’s treatments are shrouded in mystery. When Juergen Klinsmann was unable to play in the early stages of Euro 96, Dr Mueller-Wohlfahrt administered more than 20 injections to the player’s knee. Ultimately, Klinsmann lifted the trophy, but on being asked about the treatment he admitted: "I had no idea what was in any of the injections."

Mueller-Wohlfahrt has a long association with the German national team and Bayern Munich, going back more than 30 years, although allegations that he had the entire 1974 World Cup squad on anabolic steroids - two years before the drug was banned in sport - has prompted some to question his unorthodox methods.

Not Darren Gough, the England cricketer who claims he would not be able to play in this week’s tsunami charity match in Melbourne were it not for the doctor. "I’ve had four operations," he said. "Mueller-Wohlfahrt said if I’d come to him from the start, I wouldn’t have needed any of them.

"He looks after Ronaldo, Zidane, Michael Owen and Michael Jordan - all the big names. I know some people thought it might not be legal, but look at all the people he treats. Would they see him if they were going to fail drug tests? I’ve taken three drug tests and I’m fine. The guy knows exactly what he’s doing."

Yet Mueller-Wohlfahrt’s celebrity client list includes as many flops as it has miracle cures. For instance, days before her Olympic Marathon nightmare, Paula Radcliffe sought treatment from Mueller-Wohlfahrt for a secret groin injury, to no avail.

"To outsiders, my methods are unorthodox," Mueller-Wohlfahrt said in a rare interview seven years ago, "but I stand by my results." (Source: Scotsman.com; Jan 9, 2005)

Bekele's race future on hold as he grieves over fiancée

A mournful shadow will be cast over the first major athletics event of the year in Britain, whether or not the grieving Kenenisa Bekele decides to travel from Ethiopia to run in the View From Great Edinburgh cross-country meeting in Holyrood Park next Saturday. Bekele, the International Association of Athletics Federations' reigning Male Athlete of the Year, was at home in Addis Ababa yesterday, still struggling to come to terms with the tragic sudden loss of his 18-year-old fiancée, Alem Techale, who collapsed and died while the couple were training in woods on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital last Tuesday morning.

His racing plans have been placed on hold, although he has spoken with his manager, Jos Hermens, about still running in Edinburgh, possibly as a tribute to the girl he was due to marry in Addis Ababa on 8 May.

"Nova International, the meeting organisers, have been excellent with us," Hermens said. "They have not been pushing us for a decision. We have spoken about it, and one minute Kenenisa wants to run in Edinburgh and the next minute he does not. He has even talked about running round the course as a symbolic gesture, but I don't know if that's a good idea. I will talk to Nova and then talk to Kenenisa again and we will see how he is at the start of next week."

Hermens was back at his base at Nijmegen in Holland yesterday after travelling to Assela, 150 miles east of Addis Ababa, to attend Techale's funeral on Wednesday. Like Bekele, Techale was one of the international athletes represented by Hermens' company, Global Sports Communication. She missed the 2004 track season because of injury, but in July 2003 she became the first Ethiopian woman to secure a global 1500m title when she won at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada.

While Bekele has established himself, at 22, as the great new force of world distance running, Techale had been expected to break new ground for her country in the middle distances. "We are talking about the loss of an athlete as a person, not of an athlete as a performer," Hermens said. "That is the tragedy. A young life has been lost. It is difficult to say if it was heart failure or something to do with the brain. The Ethiopian doctors who performed the autopsy could find nothing. You ask yourself if you could do more in terms of testing, but Alem had a check-up in Holland last year. Sometimes you cannot forecast these things.

"Obviously, Kenenisa has been left devastated - even more so with the way it happened. At first we thought Alem had died on the way to hospital, but she actually died in the woods while Kenenisa was running to get his car. She passed away before he could get back to her. He took her to hospital but there was nothing he could do. To have your fiancée die in that way is a terrible thing.

"I've been with Kenenisa for two days and he's very quiet. He has not said much. It is difficult, because everything has happened so quickly. In Ethiopia the funerals are very soon afterwards - in this case the next day. He is mourning now, and he's contemplating whether to go abroad. He feels if he stays in Ethiopia it will take him forever to mourn, because everybody is watching him, to see what he does, to see how he reacts. At the moment, he needs a few more days to decide what to do next."

Bekele had already mapped out his racing plans for the first quarter of 2005: the 9km feature race in Edinburgh next Saturday; an indoor race in Boston on 29 January, which would be his debut in the United States; an attempt to break Haile Gebrselassie's indoor two-mile world record in Birmingham on 18 February; and the World Cross Country Championships at St Galmier in France on 19 and 20 March. It remains to be seen whether he will have the motivation to fulfil such a high-profile schedule or whether he will withdraw from the competitive spotlight for a period of contemplation.

Bekele has carried everything before him in the past 12 months, with the exception of the Olympic 5,000m final, in which he finished runner-up to Hicham El Guerrouj. That was his only loss in 2004, a year in which he relieved Gebrselassie of his Olympic 10,000m crown and his prized 5,000m and 10,000m world records, and in which he also completed a third successive long-course and short-course double at the World Cross Country Championships.

Clutching the World Athlete of the Year statuette he received in Monte Carlo last September, Bekele spoke of his hunger to "win many more prizes" but talked most animatedly of all when asked about the prospect of his marriage to Techale.

"She is not the lucky girl; I am the lucky man," he said. "We have not discussed anything about children yet, but I don't want her to be my housewife. I want her to run for her country and make a name for herself."

Sadly, that name will be as the world youth champion who was cruelly lost at such a youthful age.

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