“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.”