Why It Matters
If Gebrselassie really is a few years older than his official age, then he has not done the impossible, but rather redefined the possible, which, of course, sometimes happens in sports. And that’s why this business of Gebrselassie’s real age matters.
An admission, or the discovery of real proof, that Gebrselassie was over 40 when he set his existing marathon world record would require us to explain how it is possible for a 40-year-old man to run 26.2 miles faster than any younger man ever has.
One possible explanation comes from the example of the legendary triathlete Dave Scott, who achieved history’s greatest performance by an acknowledged master’s endurance athlete in finishing second to Greg Welch in the 1994 Ironman World Championship. Scott was famous throughout his career for having a bottomless passion to train and race. Despite winning Ironman six-times between 1980 and 1987, Scott was not regarded as the most talented triathlete of his day, and he himself conceded he was not. But he was the most zealous.
A kind of brazen age defiance was mixed up in Scott’s passion to work out and compete. In 1982, Scott told his then-girlfriend and fellow elite triathlete Linda Buchanan that he wanted to be fitter at age 40 than he was at 28. And he would be. “I didn’t feel that I had physically deteriorated,” Scott recalls of his 1994 comeback. “I didn’t feel like there were any boundaries. I was constantly reminded of how old I was, but those comments went in one ear and out the other.”
Haile Gebrselassie has brought a passion much like Dave Scott’s to his career in running. There are probably other runners who are as talented as Gebrselassie, but none loves running as much as he does. And that same, brazen defiance of age is mixed up in his zeal. “The more you age, the more you’re getting stronger,” Haile said at a press conference before the 2010 New York City Marathon. “I still feel like age of 20.”
In reality, getting older only makes you stronger until it makes you weaker. Every runner starts to slow down eventually. But perhaps Haile Gebrselassie is living proof that most runners start to slow down almost voluntarily, for psychological reasons, before they have to slow down for physical ones. Perhaps in most runners the hunger weakens before the muscles do. Maybe they start to slow down when they do because they expect to.
Would that change if we knew how old Haile Gebrselassie really is?