25 Years Later: A Look Back At One of the Greatest Nights in Distance Running History

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Two Legendary Runners, Two World Records: 25 years ago at the 1995 Weltklasse Zürich meet, Haile Gebrselassie and Moses Kiptanui lit up the track with two barrier-breaking performances. It was the Golden Age of one of Europe’s finest meets.

By Jonathan Gault
August 17, 2020

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Haile Gebrselassie was on the verge of history, and announcer Larry Rawson was scared.

It was August 16, 1995, and Rawson was sitting in the broadcast tribune above the finish line at Letzigrund Stadium for the annual Weltklasse Zürich meet. If you’ve ever listened to Rawson call a track meet, you know he tries very hard to contextualize for his audience exactly how fast an athlete is running. And in this case, Rawson, calling the race for ESPN, knew Gebrselassie wanted to break the world record for 5,000 meters, which stood at 12:55.30, which comes out to 4:09.49 per mile. Rawson rounded up slightly and determined 4:10 would be the magic number for that race; if Geb was close to that pace, the world record would be in danger.

Yet as Gebrselassie, elfin yet powerful at 5-foot-5, circled the track on that night in Zürich, his heels clipping at the back of his royal blue adidas shorts with every stride, a sense of dread began to build in the back of Rawson’s mind. Gebrselassie had passed through 3200 meters in 8:13, meaning he was on 4:07 mile pace, comfortably under world record tempo. And now he was…picking it up?

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Rawson read the splits on his watch and could scarcely believe them. Gebrselassie had covered his next lap, from 3200 to 3600 meters, in 60.7 seconds. Then 60.1, 60.2, and another 60.2. Suddenly Gebrselassie only had 200 meters to go, and was on track to break the world record by more than 10 seconds.

Gebrselassie was running so fast, Rawson began to question himself. His view of the 5,000m start, the point at which Rawson had been collecting his splits, was partially obscured by a pack of officials; had he been taking splits from the wrong mark? Had he not been adding enough to convert Geb’s pace for 1600 to his pace for a full mile? According to Rawson’s watch, Geb was about to run something in the mid-12:40s. That couldn’t be right, could it?

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“I’m saying to myself, Holy crap, I could look like an idiot here,” Rawson recalls. “…That is probably the single most stunning race that I can recall ever watching. The danger of what I had to say on the air and [the possibility of] being wrong, was kind of scary at the time.”

Rawson was not wrong. Gebrselassie finished in 12:44.39, shaving a monstrous 10.91 seconds off the world record Moses Kiptanui had set earlier that year — the largest improvement of the record in 63 years (at the time — 88 years currently). Seconds after crossing the finish line, Kiptanui was on the track to congratulate Gebrselassie. Kiptanui was a little disappointed that his reign as world record holder had lasted only two months. But he was still in a pleasant mood: less than two hours earlier, he had become the first man in history to break 8:00 in the steeplechase.

In that moment, Ethiopia’s best distance runner and Kenya’s best distance runner embraced. Two men, two legendary world records, and one unforgettable night in Zürich. Here’s how it all came about.

***

After Suzy Favor Hamilton stepped off the track with a lap remaining in her 1500m semifinal at the 2001 World Championships, she delivered an explanation that would go down in track & field history.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll catch them. I’ve lost too much distance,'” Favor Hamilton said. “So instead of wearing myself out on another lap, I decided that I shouldn’t finish this one and save myself for Zürich.”

For more classic Weltklasse moments, read this RunBlogRun feature.

Favor Hamilton’s response was, rightfully, ripped. Dropping out of the World freakin’ Championships to save yourself for some European meet?

But the fact that Favor Hamilton used Zürich as the meet in her explanation is telling. Because during the 1980s and 1990s, Zürich was the meet on the European circuit.

“[Meet director Andreas] Brugger, a member of the city’s banking community, has $2.96 million for athlete procurement in a meet budget of $4.82 million, thanks to sponsors and TV rights,” wrote the Chicago Tribune‘s Philip Hersh ahead of the 1995 edition of the Weltklasse. “That allows him to get virtually any athlete he wants, no matter the asking price.”

The talent Brugger assembled, year after year, was so good that the Weltklasse became known as the “three-hour Olympics.”

But the meet’s appeal went beyond Zürich’s deep pockets. The Weltklasse was astoundingly popular in Switzerland, selling out the 24,000-seat Letzigrund Stadium up to a year in advance. Businessmen would advertise in the local paper for six months in the leadup to the meet, trying to find extra tickets for their guests.

And there was no better place to watch a track meet than Letzigrund.

“Before they renovated it [in 2007], there was just a feeling of being closer to the action,” says agent Dan Lilot, who in 1995 was studying abroad in Sweden and took an overnight train to attend the meet. “The way the roof was, it was closer and lower, so it just seemed to trap the sound…They had that standing room section on the first turn that was especially loud, and they used to do a chant, like a soccer chant, they would say, like, ‘mer-LENE o-TTEY, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap.’ It had the best atmosphere of any meet on the circuit.”

Between the money and the crowds, everybody wanted to run at the Weltklasse. And funnily enough, in 1995, six years before Favor Hamilton’s infamous quote, both Gebrselassie and Kiptanui really were saving themselves for Zürich.

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On August 8, Gebrselassie won the 10,000 meters at the World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. Geb was also entered in the 5,000 at Worlds, but the final was set for on August 13. That was a problem, because Gebrselassie wanted to make an attempt on the 5,000 world record in Zürich on August 16. Realistically, he could not do both: if Geb ran the 5,000 at Worlds, he would be too tired to break the world record in Zürich. Geb had to choose.

The decision, according to Gebrselassie’s agent Jos Hermens, was all about Gebrselassie’s legacy. Though Geb had never even competed at the Olympics at this point, Hermens knew he was dealing with a monster talent was already thinking about what it would take for Geb to go down as the greatest of all time, a title many believed belonged to Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. Hermens concluded it was unlikely Geb could ever match Zatopek’s most legendary performance, his triple golds in the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon at the 1952 Olympics. But he felt Geb could surpass Zatopek in other areas.

“One of the things we came across is that Zatopek had broken [18] world records,” Hermens says. “Anyway, we were looking at, at least we can beat that — and in the end, Haile did 26 or 27.”

So after Geb won the 10,000 in Gothenburg, he and Hermens considered what was more important for his legacy: another gold medal from the World Championships (an event that did not exist in Zatopek’s day), or a shot at a world record? They opted to chase the world record.

A bonus: the current record was held by Kiptanui, a Kenya. Gebrselassie, an Ethiopian, wanted to reclaim it for his country.

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Kiptanui, similarly, faced a quick turnaround between Worlds and Zürich. The steeplechase final was on August 11, with Zürich just five days later. Though he won the steeple with ease in Gothenburg in 8:04.16 (the #3 time in history at the time), he told Hersh he purposefully let off the gas in the final lap.

“I could have broken the world record, but with 400 meters to go I saw I was so far ahead I decided to save it for Zürich,” Kiptanui said.

Why would Kiptanui wait? Because if you were going to break a world record, you wanted to do it in Zürich, where Brugger offered $50,000 and a two-kilogram gold bar as a reward. The gold bar was ceremonial — current Zürich co-meet director Christoph Joho says the “gold” bars athletes received were actually made of chocolate — but athletes did receive the cash value of the bar (over $12,000 in 1995).

***

Moses Kiptanui broke his first world record on August 16, 1992, running 7:28.96 for 3,000 meters flat in Cologne. Three days later, he claimed his second, clocking 8:02.08 for the 3,000 steeplechase in Zürich. Becoming a double world record holder was nice, but Kiptanui was already thinking bigger: he knew the first man under 8:00 in the steeple would be remembered forever. He vowed to return to Zürich and take the record under 8:00.

Kiptanui spent the next three years winning almost everything in sight. 1995 had been his best year yet, and he entered the Weltklasse in the form of his life. Already that season, he had run flat personal bests of 7:27.18 and 12:55.30, the latter a world record. In the steeple, he had run the #2 and #3 times in history in his last two steeples before Zürich, the second of which clinched his third straight world title. Everything was in place for him to crack 8:00.

Kiptanui knew he was in shape to do it. And he wanted to do it his way: without a pacemaker.

“At times, you wanted to prove to the world that you can run, that even in good shape, you can still do cool things,” Kiptanui says. “Doing without pacemakers, it’s something that I wanted for many years. Because [some people] believe we can only break records by having pacemakers. But I just wanted to prove to them that I can still do it without [them].”

Kiptanui’s manager, the late Kim McDonald, tried to convince Kiptanui to use a pacer. Kiptanui pushed back. No pacers, Kiptanui argued, would allow him a clean runup to every barrier. And more importantly, it would set his mind at ease.

“I told him, if pacemakers are there, I might [not be as] comfortable as possible, because I wanted to prove that I can do it by myself,” Kiptanui says.

McDonald relented. Kiptanui would make the attempt alone.

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In Zürich, Kiptanui went to the front early, and with three laps to go, the lead pack was down to the three medalists from Worlds: the imperious Kiptanui leading the way, with his barefoot countryman Christopher Koskei and Saudi Arabia’s Saad Al-Asmari desperately trying to hold on. A lap later, Koskei and Al-Asmari had faded into the chase pack, leaving Kiptanui on his own up front to chase immortality.

As Kiptanui hit the bell in 6:59, the world record seemed destined to fall, but he wanted more — and knew he was capable of it.

“The last 400, I did it fast, comfortable, and I knew I would do it,” Kiptanui says.

Pumping his arms down the home stretch, Kiptanui did just that, closing out his race with a 60.10 last lap to stop the clock at 7:59.18, the first human in history under 8:00. Kiptanui says the race never felt hard for him — which perhaps explains why he was able to run 7:28 for 3,000 flat in Cologne just two days later, before dipping under 8:00 in the steeple again in Brussels on August 25. By the end of the year, Kiptanui owned the six fastest steeples in history — five of them from his incredible 1995 season. Kiptanui would run faster — he set his lifetime pb of 7:56.16 in 1997 — but says becoming the first man under 8:00 remains the proudest achievement of his career.

“That is the best I could have done in the world of athletics.”

Kiptanui smashing through the 8:00 barrier remains one of the great acomplishments in distance running. And yet it may not have even been the best performance of the meet, such was the brilliance of Gebrselassie’s run. (While we’re here, spare a thought for Noureddine Morceli, who ran 3:45.19 to win the mile that night in Zürich — just .80 off the world record and still the seventh-fastest mile ever run — and was completely overshadowed).

As Gebrselassie strode to the track for the 5,000 meters, Hermens positioned himself on the infield near the start line in order to read off Geb’s splits. Geb was fit — very fit. A week earlier in Gothenburg, he had broke the World Championship record by running 27:12.95 — the #8 time ever. Yet Geb still closed so hard that he covered his final 200m in 25.1 — faster than Wilson Kipketer ran for his final 200 to win 800m gold (and Kipketer negative-split that race). Hermens knew the world record would fall in Zürich; it was just a question of by how much.

Unlike Kiptanui, Geb elected to use pacemakers in his attempt, and he had an excellent one in Worku Bikila, who had almost broken the world record himself earlier that year by running 12:57 in Rome. After Irishman Frank O’Mara led in the early stages, Bikila took the lead just before 1600, which he hit in 4:08.

Bikila upped the tempo, hitting 3000 in 7:42 and 3200 in 8:13, and while that was fast enough to drop everyone else, Geb still wanted more. At 3300, Geb swung wide of Bikila, signaling his intent to pass; Bikila gave one last concerted effort, sprinting to take Geb through 3400 before stepping off.

That’s when things really got crazy. Geb ripped off a string of 60-second laps that sent the crowd into a frenzy — and had Rawson worrying in the broadcast tribune.

The fans were so loud, Hermens had to get right in Geb’s face, almost leaning over the track, just to tell him his splits. Eventually, he gave up.

“The last lap, I didn’t give him any times anymore because he was so far under the world record,” Hermens says. “I just figured, let him run.”

Geb finished in 12:44.39, obliterating Kiptanui’s world record. And while Bikila had done a terrific job of pacemaking, the truth is that Geb, like Kiptanui, had probably not needed a rabbit to break the world record on this night: he had covered his final 1600, alone, in 4:00.

Neither Geb nor Kiptanui were big partiers, so there were no wild celebrations. After press conferences and doping control, Geb didn’t get back to his hotel until 1 a.m. — at which point he found more press in the lobby waiting for him. Kiptanui returned to the hotel and stayed up late just talking about the race with his friends, content with the knowledge that he had accomplished something no one else ever could.

“I was really relieved and happy that I had done something great in my life,” Kiptanui says.

No celebration could have topped what Kiptanui and Gebrselassie accomplished on the track that night. In 2020, the idea of just one distance world record going down is exciting — Joshua Cheptegei‘s incredible run in Monaco on Friday was the first world record in a men’s distance event on the track (1500, 3k, 5k, 10k, steeple) in almost 15 years. But for a few years in the late 1990s, anything was possible in Zürich. In 1997, just two years after Kiptanui and Gebrselassie’s famous runs, Zürich saw three world records, in the men’s 800, 5k, and steeple. Between the electricity of the crowd and the anticipation that history could be made at any moment, those nights in Zürich produced a feeling that those who were there will never forget.

“That atmosphere has never come back to Zürich as it was in the old days in the old stadium,” Hermens says. “…You say normally, ‘love is in the air.’ This was like, great performances are in the air.”


Talk about the historic 1995 Weltklasse meet in our world-famous fan forum/messageboard. MB: Sub-8 and 12:44.39 at 1995 Weltklasse Zürich: A look back at one of the greatest nights in distance running history 25 yrs later

Related: World Athletics: On its 25th anniversary, remembering Kiptanui’s historic sub-eight-minute steeplechase
RunBlogRun: 2019 Zurich Diary: Postcards from Weltklasse, “the one day Olympics”


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