His passport says he’s 39, but there’s reason to believe the former marathon world-record holder may be older than that.
Every morning, Haile Gebrselassie trains with a select group of runners in the Entoto Hills east of the Ethiopian capitol of Addis Ababa. It’s been his routine for many years. One morning in February 2008, Haile’s group, whose composition changes a bit from day to day, included Hirpasa Lemi, husband of Berhane Adere, a multiple world champion on the track and on the roads. Also present—as an observer—was Matt Turnbull, an Englishman who now works as the elite athlete coordinator for the Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series.
After meeting up, the ten or twelve runners comprising that day’s group separated into smaller packs, each of which went off to do its own workout. Ninety minutes later, everyone reconvened back where they had started. The only non-professional runner in the group, Lemi was proud to have held his own.
“Not bad for an old man,” he said, beaming. Then, turning to Turnbull, Lemi asked, “How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know—50,” Turnbull joked.
“Forty-one,” Lemi said. “Same age as Haile!”
Everyone laughed. Everyone except Haile, whose passport states his date of birth as April 18, 1973, making him officially 34 years old, almost 35, at the time. Hirpasa Lemi knew otherwise. He had grown up with Gebrselassie in the Arsi Province. Like most rural Ethiopians, Lemi could not prove his own exact date of birth, but he knew it was approximately 1967, and he remembered that Haile had been small when he was small, that Haile had hit puberty when he hit puberty, and so forth.
Lemi was not alone in this knowledge. The extreme “rounding down” of Haile Gebrselassie’s age was the worst-kept secret in the Ethiopian running community. That’s why everyone laughed when Lemi made reference to it. Everyone except Haile.
The discrepancy between Gebrselassie’s stated age and his true age had no real significance before this incident. He was inarguably the greatest runner in history, and the murkiness of his age did not color his achievements one way or the other. But seven months after this episode, Gebrselassie broke his own marathon world record in Berlin, running 2:03:59. If Haile is even four-and-a-half years older than his official age, instead of the six-plus years that Lemi insinuated, then the fastest marathon ever run was run by a forty-year-old man.
History’s first sub-2:04 marathon is a great accomplishment in itself. But if it was truly run by a Masters athlete, when the recognized Masters world record is 2:08:46, then Gebrselassie’s performance undoubtedly stands as the single greatest running feat of all time—a performance that destroys our existing beliefs about the effects of age on running capacity. And Haile deserves credit for that. Ironically, however, he doesn’t want it.
“I don’t know, but I can find out.”
It cannot be definitively proven that Haile Gebrselassie is older than his official age. That’s because nobody, including Haile himself, knows exactly how old he is. Even if Gebrselassie is not significantly older than he claims to be, he almost certainly was not born on April 18, 1973, as his passport states. Very few Ethiopians born in rural areas (as Gebrselassie was, in the small village of Asella) are born in hospitals, and those who aren’t born in hospitals don’t have birth certificates. This is beginning to change, but back in the 1960s and ‘70s, rural Ethiopians with birth certificates were almost as rare as leprechauns.
You might think that rural Ethiopian mothers would remember their children’s birth dates, but that’s seldom the case, in part because they tend to produce a lot of children (Haile was one of ten) and in part because they don’t care. Further complicating matters is the fact that Ethiopia has its own calendar, with 13 months. It’s currently 2005 in that country.
In his work as director of the organization Running Across Borders, which is based in Ethiopia, Garrett Ash, an American, often finds himself in the position of asking young Ethiopian runners how old they are. The typical answer, he says, is, “I don’t know, but I can find out for you.” Whatever number the child comes back with is still only approximate.
The lack of transparency in matters of age in Ethiopia opens the door for systemic age manipulation among runners seeking opportunities. “It’s definitely in an athlete’s interest to appear younger,” says Ash. “If you see a 21-year-old running a fast marathon, you’ll be more interested than you would be in a 26-year-old running a fast marathon.
According to an international sports agent who represents many African runners and who prefers to remain anonymous when speaking on this subject, age manipulation actually works in both directions. “Some add a few years to enable them to compete abroad earlier, while others deduct a few years to make them seem younger than they really are,” he says.
Age falsification begins early. Scouts for running clubs based in Addis Ababa regularly recruit athletes in rural youth running projects sprinkled throughout the country. The better athletes in these clubs present themselves as younger than they really are to curry the interest of the scouts. While the scouts might make some effort at verification during the recruiting process, formal age determination does not happen until much later, when the best young runners earn their first opportunities to compete outside Ethiopian borders and must obtain passports.
It is unclear whether the Ethiopian Athletic Federation or the Ethiopian government participates, or has participated, in age falsification at this level. Garrett Ash believes this is not a current practice. “I feel the government does a pretty good job of determining ages non-generously,” he says. “The Ethiopian Athletics Federation also, in my experience, tends to be very above-the-table and honest.” But Ash concedes that, even when acting in good faith, the government and the federation often lack the documentation and information needed to make an accurate age determination, leaving plenty of room for individual athletes to pull one over on them.
The Case For An Older Haile
Haile Gebrselassie first competed outside Ethiopia in 1991. Regardless of what went on in his age determination process, a discrepancy between Haile’s official age and the age he appeared to be was noticed right away by Western observers. Photographer Victah Sailer saw Gebrselassie claim a bronze medal at the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Boston in 1992. He took no notice of the future legend then, but when he saw Haile win the World Championships 10,000m in Stuttgart the following year, Sailer observed that “he looked older” than his official age of 20 years.
But is merely looking older than you claim to be evidence that you really are? Well, yes. Humans are exceptionally skilled at assessing one another’s age by the appearance of the face. It’s a hardwired gift that, according to evolutionary biologists, is useful in selecting “mates” of the appropriate age. In 1995, psychologists Mike Burt and David Perrett conducted a study in which subjects were asked to guess the ages of adults between the ages of 20 and 54 from color photographs of their faces. The guesses deviated from the actual ages by an average of only 2.39 years.
I showed a portrait photograph of Haile Gebrselassie, taken in November 2010, when he was supposedly 37 years and seven months old, to a number of people who did not know who he was, and asked them to guess his age. The average guess was 43.13 years. Of course, there are exceptional cases of individuals who look older than they are, but when considered with the other circumstantial evidence that Gebrselassie is older than his passport states, this informal experiment strengthens the case.
In addition to Hirsa Lemi’s testimony and Gebrselassie’s appearance, there are a couple of other bits of circumstantial evidence that suggest the current marathon world-record holder may be a few years older than he claims to be. First, certain elements of Haile’s biography don’t line up well with his official date of birth. For example, in June 1988, Gebrselassie, having already graduated from high school, traveled alone from his home village of Asella to Addis Ababa to visit his brother Tekeye, during which visit he ran the Abebe Bikila Marathon. Officially, Haile had just turned 16. Even in Ethiopia, that’s awfully young to be out of high school and traveling long distances alone to run full marathons.
Seven years earlier, during the 1980 Olympics, Gebrselassie pinched a set of batteries from his father and installed them in a transistor radio so he could listen to coverage of the men’s 5000m and 10,000m races, which were won by early Ethiopian running hero Miruts Yifter. Gebrselassie was, according to his official date of birth, just seven years old then.
Longtime television running commentator Toni Reavis expressed his doubts about this story in an email message. “Being a great sports fan my whole life,” he wrote, “seven is about as young as I can imagine a kid being and still having the combination of wits to take dad’s batteries, and interest to know when the Games would be airing, and the time to have followed a hero long enough to be in his thrall. In fact, it sounds more like something a ten-year-old would be up to.”
Reavis points out that, during those Olympics, there was much speculation about Yifter’s own age. His passport said he was 33, but he had a big bald spot on the top of his head and other reports placed his age as high as 42. When questioned directly about the matter, Yifter replied, “Men may steal my chickens. Men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age.”
Gebrselassie is similarly cagey in his answers to questions about his age. One might expect an athlete who truly believes that his passport date of birth is accurate and wants to put doubts about his age to rest to respond to such inquiries by saying something like this: “Listen, I know I look a little older, but I really am 37. It’s true that I don’t have a birth certificate and I don’t know my exact date of birth, but when I got my first passport, the government went through a thorough and impartial age determination process, which I cooperated with to the best of my ability, and I think they got it about right.”
Such an answer would probably be accepted at face value by many. Instead, Gebrselassie chooses to be evasive in responding to questions about his age, as he was, for example, at a press conference held before the 2010 Marathon Popular in Madrid.
“What’s your real age—over 40?” a reporter asked.
“It’s true, I’m not 37,” Gebrselassie joked. “I’m 27. But, seriously speaking, it doesn’t matter how old I am. Age is just a number.”
If the question of Haile Gebrselassie’s true age were argued before some kind of neutral court, the foregoing case, based entirely on circumstantial evidence, would not likely persuade the jury to rule that Gebrselassie is indeed a few years older than he claims. While most, if not all, of the jurors might be privately persuaded, they could not in good faith judge that the runner’s passport age had been proven false beyond a reasonable doubt.
After all, the defense has a pretty good case of its own. Exhibit A is the official date of birth on Haile’s passport. Star witnesses include Gebrselassie’s two major biographers, neither of whom encountered any reason to doubt his age when researching his life story.
“Haile was born on the 18th of April, 1973,” says Klaus Weidt, author of Haile Gebrselassie: The Greatest Runner of All Time. “This was confirmed by Haile himself and he didn’t give any indication that he was uncomfortable with this date. In my view, all other dates and rumours are speculations without any proof.”
Perhaps the strongest evidence that Haile Gebrselassie’s passport age is accurate is his marathon world record of 2:03:59, run on September 27, 2008, when he was officially 35 years and five months old. The official single-age marathon world record for 39-year-old runners is 2:09:24. The record for 40-year-olds is actually somewhat faster—2:08:46—but still far away from Gebrselassie’s mark. These numbers suggest that a 2:03:59 marathon is impossible for a 39- or 40-year-old runner. And if that’s the case, then Gebrselassie could not be four or five years older than he claims to be.
Why It Matters
If Gebrselassie really is a few years older than his official age, then he has not done the impossible, but rather redefined the possible, which, of course, sometimes happens in sports. And that’s why this business of Gebrselassie’s real age matters.
An admission, or the discovery of real proof, that Gebrselassie was over 40 when he set his existing marathon world record would require us to explain how it is possible for a 40-year-old man to run 26.2 miles faster than any younger man ever has.
One possible explanation comes from the example of the legendary triathlete Dave Scott, who achieved history’s greatest performance by an acknowledged master’s endurance athlete in finishing second to Greg Welch in the 1994 Ironman World Championship. Scott was famous throughout his career for having a bottomless passion to train and race. Despite winning Ironman six-times between 1980 and 1987, Scott was not regarded as the most talented triathlete of his day, and he himself conceded he was not. But he was the most zealous.
A kind of brazen age defiance was mixed up in Scott’s passion to work out and compete. In 1982, Scott told his then-girlfriend and fellow elite triathlete Linda Buchanan that he wanted to be fitter at age 40 than he was at 28. And he would be. “I didn’t feel that I had physically deteriorated,” Scott recalls of his 1994 comeback. “I didn’t feel like there were any boundaries. I was constantly reminded of how old I was, but those comments went in one ear and out the other.”
Haile Gebrselassie has brought a passion much like Dave Scott’s to his career in running. There are probably other runners who are as talented as Gebrselassie, but none loves running as much as he does. And that same, brazen defiance of age is mixed up in his zeal. “The more you age, the more you’re getting stronger,” Haile said at a press conference before the 2010 New York City Marathon. “I still feel like age of 20.”
In reality, getting older only makes you stronger until it makes you weaker. Every runner starts to slow down eventually. But perhaps Haile Gebrselassie is living proof that most runners start to slow down almost voluntarily, for psychological reasons, before they have to slow down for physical ones. Perhaps in most runners the hunger weakens before the muscles do. Maybe they start to slow down when they do because they expect to.
Would that change if we knew how old Haile Gebrselassie really is?