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How Old Is Haile Gebrselassie?

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Nov. 29, 2012
  • Updated Nov. 29, 2012 at 4:41 PM UTC
Gebrselassie, foreground, has been posting world-class performances since 1992. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The Case For An Older Haile

Haile Gebrselassie first competed outside Ethiopia in 1991. Regardless of what went on in his age determination process, a discrepancy between Haile’s official age and the age he appeared to be was noticed right away by Western observers. Photographer Victah Sailer saw Gebrselassie claim a bronze medal at the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Boston in 1992. He took no notice of the future legend then, but when he saw Haile win the World Championships 10,000m in Stuttgart the following year, Sailer observed that “he looked older” than his official age of 20 years.

But is merely looking older than you claim to be evidence that you really are? Well, yes. Humans are exceptionally skilled at assessing one another’s age by the appearance of the face. It’s a hardwired gift that, according to evolutionary biologists, is useful in selecting “mates” of the appropriate age. In 1995, psychologists Mike Burt and David Perrett conducted a study in which subjects were asked to guess the ages of adults between the ages of 20 and 54 from color photographs of their faces. The guesses deviated from the actual ages by an average of only 2.39 years.

I showed a portrait photograph of Haile Gebrselassie, taken in November 2010, when he was supposedly 37 years and seven months old, to a number of people who did not know who he was, and asked them to guess his age. The average guess was 43.13 years. Of course, there are exceptional cases of individuals who look older than they are, but when considered with the other circumstantial evidence that Gebrselassie is older than his passport states, this informal experiment strengthens the case.

In addition to Hirsa Lemi’s testimony and Gebrselassie’s appearance, there are a couple of other bits of circumstantial evidence that suggest the current marathon world-record holder may be a few years older than he claims to be. First, certain elements of Haile’s biography don’t line up well with his official date of birth. For example, in June 1988, Gebrselassie, having already graduated from high school, traveled alone from his home village of Asella to Addis Ababa to visit his brother Tekeye, during which visit he ran the Abebe Bikila Marathon. Officially, Haile had just turned 16. Even in Ethiopia, that’s awfully young to be out of high school and traveling long distances alone to run full marathons.

Seven years earlier, during the 1980 Olympics, Gebrselassie pinched a set of batteries from his father and installed them in a transistor radio so he could listen to coverage of the men’s 5000m and 10,000m races, which were won by early Ethiopian running hero Miruts Yifter. Gebrselassie was, according to his official date of birth, just seven years old then.

Longtime television running commentator Toni Reavis expressed his doubts about this story in an email message. “Being a great sports fan my whole life,” he wrote, “seven is about as young as I can imagine a kid being and still having the combination of wits to take dad’s batteries, and interest to know when the Games would be airing, and the time to have followed a hero long enough to be in his thrall. In fact, it sounds more like something a ten-year-old would be up to.”

Reavis points out that, during those Olympics, there was much speculation about Yifter’s own age. His passport said he was 33, but he had a big bald spot on the top of his head and other reports placed his age as high as 42. When questioned directly about the matter, Yifter replied, “Men may steal my chickens. Men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age.”

Gebrselassie is similarly cagey in his answers to questions about his age. One might expect an athlete who truly believes that his passport date of birth is accurate and wants to put doubts about his age to rest to respond to such inquiries by saying something like this: “Listen, I know I look a little older, but I really am 37. It’s true that I don’t have a birth certificate and I don’t know my exact date of birth, but when I got my first passport, the government went through a thorough and impartial age determination process, which I cooperated with to the best of my ability, and I think they got it about right.”

Such an answer would probably be accepted at face value by many. Instead, Gebrselassie chooses to be evasive in responding to questions about his age, as he was, for example, at a press conference held before the 2010 Marathon Popular in Madrid.

“What’s your real age—over 40?” a reporter asked.

“It’s true, I’m not 37,” Gebrselassie joked. “I’m 27. But, seriously speaking, it doesn’t matter how old I am. Age is just a number.”

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