LRC Debate: After Berlin Who is the Greatest of All-Time – Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie or Mo Farah?
September 28, 2016
The 2016 Berlin Marathon is in the books, won in impressive fashion by Kenenisa Bekele in 2:03:03. Bekele’s magnificent performance — a personal best by over two minutes — puts him #2 on the all-time list at 26.2 (record-eligible courses) and almost a minute ahead of another legend, Haile Gebrselassie, whose 2:03:59 stood as the Ethiopian record until Sunday.
Last year, when we debated what Mo Farah would have to do to become the greatest distance runner of all time, we came to the consensus that there were two men ahead of him: Bekele and Gebrselassie. However, we didn’t debate which of those two men was the GOAT. After Bekele’s victory in Berlin, LetsRun.com’s Robert Johnson, Weldon Johnson, Steve Soprano and Jonathan Gault decided to tackle that argument.
Jonathan: With all due respect to Mo Farah — since our last debate, he swept the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics — I still think the debate for the greatest distance runner of all time comes down to Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie. Going into Berlin, I already had Bekele ahead of Geb on my personal list, so the fact that Bekele smashed Gebrselassie’s PB and came just six seconds short of holding the 5k, 10k and marathon world records simultaneously only strengthens my opinion. Here’s the case for Bekele:
– 3 Olympic golds (1 more than Geb)
– 5 outdoor World Championship golds (1 more than Geb)
– 11 World XC golds (Geb has none)
– World records at 5,000 (12:37.35) and 10,000 (26:17.53)
– Second-fastest marathoner ever at 2:03:03 (56 seconds faster than Geb)
– 6-2 head-to-head record vs. Geb (including 3-0 at Olympics/Worlds)
I know where I stand, but I’m interested to hear what you guys think. Is this even an argument anymore? Or do any of you still think that Geb is better than Bekele?
Weldon: Of course there is still an argument. When you’re comparing runners of slightly different eras, it’s never going to be undebatable.
Let’s ignore the cross country titles, which Gebrselassie does not have, but having faster PRs isn’t a fair comparison because that’s always going to favor the guy of the later generation.
Well, that’s not totally the case, because I’m sure there are some Brits who would argue Mo Farah is the GOAT, but his lack of fast times or success on anything besides the track I think excludes him from this discussion. Plus, Farah is of the same generation as Bekele (Bekele is one year older), and Bekele used to routinely destroy Farah. I just can’t put Farah ahead of Bekele for any reason.
Back to Gebrselassie, I think the best argument for him is he was more transformational than Bekele in moving the sport to a new era. The world record at 10,000m was only 26:52 before Gebrselassie broke it; he ended up lowering it all the way to 26:22. Bekele only has improved that 5 seconds. The world record at 5,000m was 12:58 before Gebrselassie broke it. He eventually lowered it to 12:39. Bekele only improved it 2 seconds. Gebrselassie took the marathon world record from 2:04:55 to 2:03:59. Bekele still hasn’t broken the marathon world record.
Gebrselassie took the sport to a new level whereas Bekele has incrementally improved it.
Both had amazingly long careers, but about a decade apart. Gebrselassie first won a worlds in 1993 and set his last marathon world record in 2008. Bekele first won world XC in 2002 and now has regained his footing 14 years later.
I’m not sure if it’s relevant to discuss drug testing, as Gebrselassie came on the scene before WADA even existed but did set his marathon world records under the modern drug testing regime.
Who wants to make the argument for Zatopek? (I mean that as a joke.)
Steve: Jon you start off saying you “still think the debate” is between Bekele and Geb, but back in February of 2015 you were arguing pretty hard on behalf of Farah and his potential to be considered the GOAT. I’m glad that over the last year and a half you’ve let go of your British bias and seen the light and realize that (as things stand right now) he’s not really in the discussion.
— LetsRun.com (@letsrundotcom) September 25, 2016
Jonathan: The key word there is potential. And I still think Farah has the potential to be the GOAT. This is a guy who’s pulled off the 5k/10k double at four consecutive global championships. It’s incredibly hard to do that once. We just take it for granted that Farah wins all these races, but he’s now got more global titles on the track (9) than either Bekele (8) or Geb (6). At this point, Farah isn’t touching Bekele’s world records, but if he becomes a top-tier marathoner, there’s at least a case to be made. That’s an argument for another day, though.
Steve: I’ll start off by saying that before Berlin, I already thought Bekele was better than Geb, so this really just reinforces that opinion even more. Geb’s 2:03:59 was the thing he could hold over Bekele and now that’s gone. I also have a soft spot for cross country and Jon as you pointed out, Bekele trounces Geb there.
Weldon, I kind of disagree with you saying “having faster PRs isn’t a fair comparison” just because Bekele ran his best times a few years after Geb. Gebrselassie set his 5,000/10,000 PBs in 1998 and Bekele ran his world records in 2004 and 2005. That’s only a six- to seven-year gap in time. This is not a Jim Ryun-Alan Webb type of comparison (Ryun is 36 years older than Webb while Bekele and Geb are only 9 years apart). Gebrselassie was not running on a cinder track without modern shoes or equipment and facilities. Their access to modern technology and training methods were very similar so I think it’s completely fair to compare their PBs.
That said, you’re right that Bekele only ran marginally faster than Gebrselassie on the track and Gebrselassie was a groundbreaker, bringing the sport to a new level. However, I don’t think being a groundbreaker necessarily gives you a huge edge in a GOAT debate (especially when both athletes are in the same era). As human performance and progress move forward, it becomes more and more difficult to improve on the past and the improvements that do happen get smaller and smaller. This gives the older generation a big advantage when it comes to opportunities to produce barrier-breaking performances.
Being the first does not mean you were the best. Roger Bannister was the first sub-4-minute miler, but most would not try and argue he is the GOAT miler. While Gebrselassie deserves a ton of credit as a trailblazer, Bekele surpassed him on the track and now by almost a minute on the roads which I think is a powerful statement. Maybe Geb could have run faster though if he had guys like Wilson Kipsang to run against, so there’s the competition factor to consider.
Weldon you asked if drug testing was relevant to the discussion and I guess I’m a little on the fence about it, but I’m going to argue it isn’t. We can’t punish Geb because he ran his track times before they had modern testing and even if he had been running later, it’s been shown that drug testing is easy to beat so I think the opportunity was there for either athlete to dope had they wanted to. However, in a “clean or dirty?” debate, Bekele running 2:03:03 right now in 2016 is a boost in his favor as testing in 2016 is better than even 2008 (MB: Has Bekele just legitimised his WRs? Clean? GOAT?). Playing devil’s advocate, is the out-of-competition testing in Ethiopia so great? Hard to say and I think a debate for another time.
Weldon: I don’t think there’s much of a debate that the out of competition testing still isn’t very good in Ethiopia.
Jonathan: I agree with Steve. This isn’t an argument about which athlete is more likely to be clean. It’s a debate about who is the greatest of all time. Of course there is a chance that one or both of them was on drugs, but to give one guy an edge because one of us thinks he’s more likely to be clean than the other is speculation. I do my best not to speculate, especially when it comes to a reasoned debate. In this discussion, as in any discussion about elite track and field in the year 2016, there is an implicit (though I guess I’m now making it explicit) acknowledgement that what we’re seeing may not be genuine. But until I have a legitimate reason to doubt them (and right now, I don’t), we have to put aside the drug speculation and judge Bekele and Geb solely on what they have accomplished during their careers.
As for the argument that Geb was a groundbreaker, I think it’s a good one and one of the ways you can justify Geb over Bekele. Another is that for most of Geb’s prime, the Olympics/Worlds had a preliminary round in the 10,000 (it was discontinued in 1999) and the ’96 Olympics had three rounds in the 5,000. So it was harder for Geb to do the double at global championships even though he broke the world record three times in each event from 1994 to 1998.
But even if we call the PRs/WRs and global track titles a draw, the answer for me is still Bekele. As I mentioned before, Bekele was an incredible cross country runner, winning the short-course/long-course double five years in a row back when World XC was more competitive than it is now. That’s a significant feather in his cap. Plus Bekele just beat Wilson Kipsang, one of the greatest marathoners ever, during the race in which Kipsang set his PR. Gebrselassie won a lot of marathons (Berlin 3x, Dubai 3x, Amsterdam, Fukuoka) and to be fair to him, beat some good runners in a few of those races. But several of those races were also set up for Geb to win. Bekele didn’t just run fast in Berlin; he took on one of the all-time greats in the marathon in peak fitness and beat him. Bekele’s Berlin run is better than any marathon Gebrselassie ever ran. Of course, you can also argue that if Geb had a guy like Kipsang to chase, he would have run a lot faster than 2:03:59.
Robert: Let me chime in here now that I’m back from vacation. As someone whose AOL password used to be HaileG, I’ll admit I’m biased in favor of Geb, but I’m not an idiot. Bekele is the GOAT. The only knock on him coming really as compared to Geb was the lack of a super fast marathon PB, but that’s now gone. When you add in all of Bekele’s world xc accolades, I don’t think Geb can be considered the GOAT.
Jon thinks Farah could eventually make a claim but he’s going to need at least another Olympic gold in 2020 and at least one world record. If Farah, simply wins another track gold in 2020, I’m not putting him ahead of Bekele. No way. If Farah somehow won Olympic marathon gold in 2020, I’d start to consider him for GOAT but without a world record (and no his indoor 2 mile WR doesn’t do it for me), it’s still a real long shot.
Weldon: Haile G has a special place in my heart as well. When I first really started following the sport professionally he was the king. And I saw him win the 1996 Olympics as a fan and touched his hand afterwards on his victory lap. I agree Bekele is the GOAT, but I don’t think that means he’s #1 in the hearts of track and field fans.