NOVEMBER 8, 2010
HAILE Gebrselassie, who called time on a storied distance running career overnight, is guaranteed an exalted position in athletics’ hall of fame as well as in the hearts of his Ethiopian countrymen.
A diminutive man with an outsized personality, Gebrselassie already owned a string of world records and Olympic and world titles stretching from 1500m to 10,000m before reinventing himself in the twilight of his career by setting the world’s fastest time in the marathon.
Running brought Gebrselassie a long way from where he grew up in the fertile Arsi region of south Ethiopia.
One of 10 children, he used to run to school, but his father did not approve of his aspirations to be become an athlete in later life, locking him away for days at a time without food as punishment to push him toward a real profession.
It was only after his victory in the world junior championships in Seoul in 1992 that he was allowed to continue running.
At 15 he ran his first marathon, wearing street shoes, in Addis Abba in a time of 2hrs 48min, taking a 200km bus trip back to his village and hobbling the last few kilometres in agony, his great journey only just begun.
Gebrselassie had said after finishing sixth in the 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics that he saw no reason he couldn’t race through to the 2012 London Games, even though he would be nearly 40.
It was after the 2008 Games that he returned to Berlin to lower his marathon world record to 2hr 3min 59sec.
He has won the Berlin Marathon four times and triumphed at Dubai the past three years.
He was racing the New York City Marathon for the first time overnight, receiving treatment before the race for inflammation in his right knee. When the pain forced him to pull out at the 16-mile mark, Gebrselassie said it was time to turn his attention to other interests, including his business empire in his homeland.
“I never think about to retire. But for the first time, this is the day,” Gebrselassie said. “Let me stop and do other work after this.”
He departs athletics with two Olympic golds, four world titles, indoors and out and innumerable victories on road and track.
In 2004, Gebrselassie set the then-marathon world record of 2:04.26 in Berlin, beating the previous world best time set at the same venue four years previously by his great 10,000m rival Kenya’s Paul Tergat.
Tergat lost out in two classic Olympic 10,000 metres races, in Atlanta 1996, and Sydney 2000.
It was the latter race which defined Gebrselassie. Badly injured some months before, he had only effected a comeback shortly before the Olympics.
He would have been in no shape to cope with Tergat had the Kenyan thought to reproduce the tactics of Atlanta, where he had run the second 5000 metres over half a minute faster than the first half in a bid to run the legs off the Ethiopian.
But Gebrselassie was in prime form in Atlanta, and swept past to victory. That must have laid the doubts in Tergat’s mind. Never a fast finisher, he worked and worked on his speed in 2000, such that he felt he could outsprint the Ethiopian in Sydney.
Tergat ran steadily, and shot away with 300 metres to run. A determined Gebrselassie clawed it back gradually, and inched past to victory.
Gebrselassie also took four consecutive 10,000m world titles from 1993-1999, won an indoor 1,500m title in 1999 and set a 5,000m world record that same year.
He set the 10,000m world record three times.
Gebrselassie has already cushioned himself for a good life, away from athletics.
Known as the Little Emperor, he is an avid patriot and has voiced a desire to go into politics after his retirement.
He has demonstrated leadership qualities in running his many businesses.
From sports marketing to cinema to the hotel industry, he has used his huge earnings to change the skyline of the capital city of Addis Ababa.
“Running is a gift that has allowed me to leave poverty behind,” he has said. “My goal is to give my countrymen the chance to get out of poverty.”