“I will always be running, running is my life.”
Most athletes may be well into their dotage at 38 years of age, but not Haile Gebrselassie, who is still at the pinnacle of his sport, nearly two decades after winning his first world title.
“I will always be running, running is my life. I feel fortunate to have my talents, and that I have been able to completely use my talents, that makes me a privileged person,” reflects Gebrselassie as he eyes a fifth Olympic Games next summer in London and the chance to become the first man in history to win gold medals across three different decades.
It would be a remarkable feat for the great Ethiopian whose iconic grin, even through the heat of competition, has become the sporting emblem of his nation and an inspiration for professional and amateur runners worldwide. But just ten months ago it seemed he had come to the end of the road after an illustrious 19 year career.
With his right knee inflamed by a build-up of fluid, Gebrselassie could not complete the ING New York City Marathon and abruptly announced his retirement. Maybe even Gebrselassie’s evergreen body had finally reached its sell-by-date.
“After the race I was very disappointed, not only for myself but also because I let down the expectations of many people,” he explains. “Of course when you grow older, you cannot always perform at your best level. I couldn’t perform well in New York and my first idea was to quit. But after some time off and consultation with my family and good friends, I decided to continue. I still enjoy training very much and feel I can still be at the top level and that changed my plan.”
The news of his retirement had created an outcry in his homeland, one which was ultimately impossible for Gebrselassie to resist. It is difficult for us to grasp the sheer immensity of his popularity in Ethiopia. No other athlete in the world is held in such great affection. But it is understandable as his success paved the way for his country to become the distance running superpower of the last decade.
We often talk about the ‘African monopoly’ of the long distance events–generalizing it as a continental trait–but, in fact, almost all of the success is confined to those two powerhouses, Ethiopia and Kenya, on either side of the majestic Great Rift Valley. It is truly astonishing just how localized this running culture is. Even in nearby Somalia, running as a way of life is almost unheard of.
What is it about this small pocket of East Africa which has proved such a hotbed of champions?
“I think it is because our government is taking care to create a good system for the Athletics Federation,” Haile replied. “The positive attitude of the Government and Federation to look for young talent makes a big difference. Of course the altitude training is very important to us, but we also have the motivation to change our lives to get away from poverty and become famous.”
The Haile Gebrselassie story began in the hills of Asala, many miles south of the capital Addis Ababa. He grew up in a small farming community where the only means of getting to school and back was to run, a twelve mile round trip. In rural Ethiopia, running was not seen as a hobby, just a necessity to survive.
A promising young cross-country athlete, he was discovered at 18 by Dutch agent Jos Hermans who quickly signed him up. Hermans was to become like a father figure to the young Gebrselassie, living and breathing his races from the trackside.
“Jos came to Ethiopia and we started to work together,” Gebrselassie recalls. “He saw and believed in my talents and ever since we have been going up and up together. Like everyone I started slowly, the first time I competed abroad was my first cross-country championships. My life did not suddenly differ from one day to another. At first you run in smaller competitions, it is not a sudden change of the world.”
But Gebrselassie’s star was rising fast. He won a double gold at the World Junior Championships in 1992 and followed it with his first senior title a year later. Going from the poverty of his homeland to the glamour of the European athletics circuit, would take some getting used to.
“Of course my first big change was going from the countryside to Addis Ababa,” he says. “But coming from Ethiopia to Europe in the early nineties, it was a big cultural shock. Flying, staying in hotels, of course this was an incredible experience for me. I came to Europe not speaking English and with a very different cultural background, but I saw it as not a big but a great challenge and one to relish.”
“The most interesting part was definitely when I won my first Mercedes Benz car at the World Championships in Stuttgart 1993. Then even my father started to believe that running was a real profession and not just a hobby of his son!”
Gebrselassie went on to dominate the 10,000 meters for almost a decade, winning gold medals in Atlanta and Sydney, the latter being one of the great Olympic distance races and one he describes as his fondest memory from the sport.
“If I had to choose an Olympic memory, obviously my win in Sydney,” he smiles. “The fantastic fight with Paul Tergat, smallest ever margin in a 10,000-meter race. I have had the honor to compete against many good athletes. My ongoing rivalry with Paul has been the most special.”
It was those successes which served to inspire a wide-eyed young athlete by the name of Kenenisa Bekele, initially mentored by Gebrselassie himself and the man who would one day come to gain similar legendary status.
“Kenenisa came under the management of Jos’ company Global Sports Communication in 1999,” Gebrselassie remembers. “Of course it was natural for us to have a lot of contact together since we are nine years apart. It is normal that older athletes will talk to the younger athlete to give him some guidance. My advice to the younger ones has always been, ‘enjoy training, train well and stay relaxed’. I never felt pressure at competitions.”
Moving To The Marathon
He did not know it then but it was the beginning of the end of his domination on the track. Bekele announced himself to the world with some spectacular performances in Athens 2004, eclipsing his former idol. Now in his thirties, Gebrselassie began to focus on his marathon career, the distance he will run in London, setting the current world record of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 59.28 seconds in 2008.
Race organizers are offering huge rewards for the first man to dip under the magical 2 hour mark for the marathon, an almost unthinkable feat of endurance. Even Gebrselassie admits it is beyond him saying, “I don’t think it can be done in the next five years, so it won’t be possible for me, but we need a new generation of new athletes. Maybe in twenty, thirty years it will be possible.”
He’s returning to Berlin later this month, the scene of his record breaking exploits and one of the fastest courses in the world, to try and secure qualification for London 2012, explaining, “I have decided to run in Berlin [in September], hopefully in a good time so I will be picked for the Ethiopian team for the Olympics. A lot will depend on this marathon. I skipped this year’s World Championships because I can run a faster time in Berlin than in Daegu and I already have 4 world titles.”
“Of course I would like to be the marathon world champion, but Olympics are more important. Then I will be preparing for London 2012, I am not sure about any other races yet. I have struggled in London in the past but this has been in April as there are certain pollen there that I could not cope with. In August that won’t be an issue.”
Gebrselassie’s passion for running is matched only by his passion to develop his country. Not for him, the glitz and glamour of a life in Europe or the States. He has invested many of the millions earnt on the track back into Addis Ababa and he dreams of sport’s biggest circus coming to his continent.
“It would be fantastic to have the Olympics in Africa. My big dream is for Africa to develop as the rest of the world,” he says. “We need to fight the corruption and work and study hard to get there. It would be a big stimulation for us if we had the chance to organize the Olympics in the future, but at the moment I don’t see one country who can afford it. Maybe in the future we can do it with several countries.”
“I love my country. I love my people in Ethiopia and Africa. We have to develop our continent and I want to do anything possible to help develop my country and continent. I am working hard with building schools, hotels and businesses. I hope I can be a good role model for the Ethiopian youth. And I am very happy with the outside help, but I feel we need to work harder and accomplish more ourselves.”
Such is the affection he’s held in, there have been many calls for Gebrselassie to one day hold the top job in Ethiopia but he feels such talk is premature.
“At this moment it is not an option for me to be president,” he says of a future political career. “It is a big job and I feel I would like to get some more experience in my life. If I did get the chance in future, my goals would be to bring better infrastructure, better education and better birth control to Ethiopia. We need a smaller population, better education and more progress.”
For now though, he has a third Olympic gold medal to concentrate on and we may have the chance to appreciate the unique gifts of the ‘Little Master’ for a while yet.
“I feel I can still be running for many years,” he muses. “In the end the results will decide when I need to make a decision about retirement, but I am still curious how well I can run when I am over 40.”