“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?