It is dangerous to have sports heroes these days. But as I watched Haile Gebrselassie win the 10,000 meter gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and then saw the love between him and his fellow Ethiopians, I just had to believe that this is someone really worth cheering for. Check out this article about probably the greatest distance runner of all time and one of the best human beings to qualify as a sports hero.
Reprinted with permission.
SMALL only in stature. Those who chase the little Ethiopian wisp that is Haile Gebrselassie know him to be the fastest distance runner the world has ever seen. Those who meet him find something else: a giant among the dross. There is much of Mandela in his smile, though there is nothing presidential about the simple ground-floor flat into which he showed us on Friday morning. Uden is the unremarkable little town in the flatlands of southern Holland where he stays while racing in Europe. It was made all the drabber by unremitting rain last week. But even on a dark day, it is hard to take the sunshine out of Gebrselassie.
For we have seen this smile before. It is warm and gracious, wide and welcoming, but it is not an adman’s crinkle. It is the smile of a brave young man, not 26 until April, who is ready to do what he sees as his God-given duty: to go to the startline and take running to heights old-timers could hardly dream about. While other faces tighten into furious focus, his opens up to show the happiness within. It was the smile we saw in Birmingham last Sunday.
Gebrselassie’s time of 12min 50.38sec in the 5,000 metres at the BUPA Grand Prix in the National Indoor Arena that day was the 15th time he had broken a world record. He goes for the 16th over the indoor 3,000 metres at Lievin in northern France this afternoon. He already holds the 10,000 metres and 5,000 metres records outdoors, he is the Olympic and three times world champion at 10,000 metres. He also knows, and we know, that one day, maybe not until after the next Olympics, he will take the marathon and stand it on its head. “Last Sunday was incredible,” he says, just 5ft 3in and a wire-hard 8st 5lb in his slippers, “the support I had was fantastic.” There must have been a good 600 flag-waving Ethiopians in the stadium. “Beforehand I want to be happy to show them I am ready. Ethiopian peoples have followed athletics since Abebe Bikila. For their sake I had to do something, if I did not break the record they would be hurt.”
Before we all go on too much about the saintliness of the little man holding forth so serenely on the Uden sofa, the small matter of a $50,000 bonus for a new world best time should not go unnoticed. And while there is indeed a monastic simplicity about Gebrselassie’s track-suited garb, it is suitably adorned with a sponsor’s logo as part of a package which puts his annual earnings into the seven-figure stratosphere.
Yet anyone who was in Atlanta will know that the attachment to his people is very real. Way after the rest of the stadium had emptied, a doughty band of flag-draped Ethiopians called and cheered as Gebrselassie jogged round and waved and smiled long into that balmy summer night. He had given them something to shout about and back home the whole nation went en fete. More than a million people lined the route to Addis Ababa. With due showmanship, Gebrselassie and his wife Alem got betrothed at the airport. Crowned heads could be turned by this. But his hasn’t been and that’s the trick.
“You must be very serious in your training,” he said on Friday, before adding with real awareness, even in his second language, a statement that every sportsmen ought to have emblazoned above the fireplace, “I can’t say I do anything. Sport is my only job and when you do something special like this you ought to do it very seriously.” His training programme is set back home in Ethiopia by the legendary Dr Woldemeskel Kostre who has been around since the days of Bikila. “I know this programme very well now,” says Gebrselassie, “but it is very, very, terrible work. No one can finish this programme except for me. Always I finish the programme.”
So Tuesday will see him running loose in the high forests of Ethiopia. “I now live in Addis Ababa at 2,600 metres,” he says, “but always I go to train up at 3,500 metres. It is hard but it is better.” Without straying into the technical mix of speed and track work that Kostre and all other programmes now entail, you are ready for where the story began.
“We were always running,” he says of a farming childhood as one of six brothers and four sisters near the country town of Assela. “We were not running for competition, not for athletics, but,” and now a joking look lights up that lean but not fragile features, “but to be on time for school.” You are allowed just one guess at the distance from the Gebrselassie farmhouse to the schoolyard. Yes, it was 10,000 metres. He nods winningly. “Maybe I get used to the distance.”
The winning did not start until he took part in a school 1500 metres. “I am winning there,” he says, “and then I went to a bigger race and won again. I knew then I wanted to do athletics.” By 1992 he had become world junior champion at 5,000 and 10,000 metres and while one must attribute the early influences of Miruts Yifter’s 1990 Olympic heroics in Moscow, and of the pathfinding of his own older brother Tekeay (a 2hr 11min marathon runner), all these pale compared to the meeting which anchored his career. The time he was spotted by former Dutch 30 kilometres world record-holder Joss Hermans, who remains his manager and mentor to this day.
“I was with a training group in Ethiopia,” says Gebrselassie. “I had almost never talked to a European before. But he is so wise, I can trust him. We limit races to 15 a year and he understands me.” Hermans declines too much of the Svengali tributes. “Who can truly claim,” he says, “that when they first looked at an 18-year-old they knew he would become the world’s best? But what is remarkable about Haile is not just his talent, there must be others as talented, but his attitude and commitment and speed of thought and decision-making in a race. I say, and I mean it, that it is an honour to be around him.”
Under Hermans’ guidance this year’s targets will be the world indoor championships in Japan next month, the world championships at Seville in the summer, and assorted world records that cross their path. Next year the Olympic 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres double will be the goal, with the redoubtable presence of Kenyan Daniel Koman likely to be the biggest threat, but even then the likelihood is that he, Hermans and the rest of us will just look on and wonder where the secret lies.
“He’s the best distance runner I have seen by a street,” said Ian Stewart as he joshed with another former UK world champion, David Bedford, last week. “This guy’s quite incredible,” said Stewart. “He’s got it all; he’s strong, decisive, and lighting quick. If you break his five- kilometre times down he is doing close to four-minute miles.”
“As for 10 kilometres, David here would be doing a best time of something like 27min 36sec, which means that Haile, at 26min 22sec would be lapping him.”
“Yes,” added Bedford, twirling what has become a luxuriant grey moustache and thinking of how his pounding old stride would fare against Gebrselassie, “phew he’s fast.”
Out by the Uden windmill for our photoshoot, the man himself pats his chest quite unaffectedly. There is absolutely no boasting in the words. “I am,” says Gebrselassie, “very big in the heart.”
Eamonn Condon, Phoenix, AZ