“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.