All Hail(e) As The Emperor Ends His Reign

Have we seen the last of Haile Gebrselassie? Photo: PhotoRun.net

Have we seen the last of Haile Gebrselassie? Photo: PhotoRun.net

One thing is for certain: there will never be another Gebrselassie.

Written by: Mario Fraioli

I’ll admit that I was less than shocked when Haile Gebrselassie pulled to the side of the road on the Queensboro Bridge just before the 16-mile mark of Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon. I was more than slightly surprised, however, when the marathon world-record holder called it quits on his illustrious career in a post-race press conference just moments after his Ethiopian compatriot Gebre Gebremariam ran one of the most excellently executed debut marathons in the history of the sport.

“I never think about retiring,” the 37-year old Gebrselassie told the speechless crowd assembled in the media conference room of the Mandarin Oriental hotel after the race. “But for the first time, this is the day. Let me stop and do other work after this. Let me stop and give a chance for the youngsters…Better to stop here.”

And just like that, the man universally known as The Emperor ended his reign over the sport of distance running, a domain he’s dominated year in and year out since 1992. A two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 10,000 meters, Gebrselassie retires as a 27-time world record holder who at one time or another over the course of his career has owned the world’s best mark at every distance from 2,000 meters through the marathon.

In the weeks leading up to Gebrselassie’s Big Apple marathon debut, I had been jokingly taking bets with colleagues what the diminutive Ethiopian’s excuse would be should he not win the race. In the past, everything from asthma troubles to sleeping on the wrong side of his body the night before the race have served as perfectly acceptable reasons for a sub-par showing or a DNF. On the flip side, these unfortunate and untimely incidents have also almost always served as precursors to a world-record run or out-of-this-world performance the next time Gebrselassie stepped on the starting line.

So while his untimely withdrawal from Sunday’s race didn’t come as a huge surprise to many, the quick curtain call on his career most definitely did—perhaps even to Gebrselassie himself. Just last week, he was quoted as saying, “Why should I retire? Why should I say I will retire in three or four years? You retire the very moment you utter those words. I still think about doing more.”

Apparently he no longer does. But why now? Why in New York? Why so unexpectedly? Did Gebrselassie, who made his knee injury public knowledge for the first time just hours before the race started on Sunday, throw in the towel on his career before the starter’s pistol was even shot? Or was his sudden tearful goodbye an emotional response in a low moment of disappointment? We may never know.

It remains to be seen if Gebrselassie, who prior to New York had already committed to running the Tokyo Marathon in February, will keep the curtain closed on his career or come back out on stage for one last encore performance in Japan. He may, he may not. Time will tell.

For the time being, however, the real reasons behind Gebrselassie’s sudden retirement may never be known, but one thing is indeed for certain: there’s no other athlete in the history of long distance running who can match Gebrselassie’s one-of-a-kind resume, or his electrifying presence and personality. There will never be a better ambassador of the sport. And whether he has another race in his seemingly ageless legs or not, there will never be another runner like Gebrselassie in this lifetime.

All Hail(e) The Emperor.

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