Emperor's new challenge

Last Updated 30 October 2010, 14:02 IST

Having won world championships or set world records from the metric mile to the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia is considered by many the greatest distance runner of this or any generation.

And yet as Gebrselassie prepares for the New York City Marathon on Nov 7, his world mark of 2 hours 3 minutes 59 seconds has fostered debate about competition versus records and has drawn criticism from some elite runners for the orchestrated way his fastest times over 26.2 miles were achieved.

After setting two dozen world records and winning two Olympic gold medals on the track at 10,000 meters, Gebrselassie has lately run marathons in an engineered manner intended to foster more records – using pacesetters on flat courses, avoiding throngs of top challengers, competing less against other runners than against the clock, essentially running time trials instead of conventional races.

Meanwhile, he has struggled on more challenging courses, against top competition, in races involving surging and other tactical decisions that play as integral a role as sheer speed.

That is what makes his coming appearance in New York so intriguing, given its bridges, hills, sharp turns, potholes and recent prohibition against pacesetters. In March, for instance, Gebrselassie dropped out during a half-marathon in New York, complaining of what appeared to be asthma but has since been identified as a nasal problem and has been resolved, according to his agent.

There is nothing against the rules in choosing to run marathons in search of records versus stringent competition. Gebrselassie has become the most recognized and popular distance runner in the world, and one of the wealthiest. He will command an appearance fee in New York of about $400,000, along with $130,000 in prize money if he wins and $60,000 to $70,000 in a time bonus for breaking the course record of 2:07:43.

He remains unapologetic about his primary aim of setting records on courses built for speed in Dubai and Berlin, where his current mark was set in 2008.  “At the end of the day, people want to see how fast you run,” Gebrselassie, 37, said Tuesday in a brief phone interview from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

But he has also drawn accusations of ducking other elite runners and undermining the spirit of head-to-head competition. Some experts consider the greatest marathon not to be Gebrselassie’s world record in Berlin but, given the moment and the conditions, the 2:06:32 that Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya ran to win the 2008 Beijing Olympics in blistering heat. Gebrselassie skipped that Olympic marathon, expressing concerns about air pollution.

“I have a lot of respect for him, but he never faces anyone,” Federico Rosa, Wanjiru’s Italian manager, said of Gebrselassie. “He doesn’t like to face other strong athletes. When he does, he has trouble.” At the London Marathon, Gebrselassie has not finished higher than third in three races there, including one dropout. He has won his nine other marathons.

“It would be great to face him,” said Wanjiru, the Olympic champion who also won the 2009 London Marathon and the 2009 and 2010 Chicago Marathons and is taking aim at Gebrselassie’s world record. “Maybe when other strong guys are running, it makes him nervous.”

Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot of Kenya, winner of the 2010 Boston Marathon, said of Gebrselassie: “I want to run with him; he’s the best. Maybe he’s afraid of us. He should be running against us, not from us.”

Perhaps the criticism stems, in part, from the intense distance-running rivalry between neighboring East African nations Kenya and Ethiopia. Some others are loath to criticize Gebrselassie, given his surpassing career, ambassadorial personality and sense of social responsibility.

In Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, Gebrselassie serves as a distributor of Hyundai automobiles, sits on the board of directors of a bank that he started with a group of investors, campaigns for AIDS awareness and has built two or three schools, a hotel and a gym, employing more than 1,000 people directly or indirectly, according to Jos Hermens, his agent from the Netherlands.

Dathan Ritzenhein of the United States, expected to be one of Gebrselassie’s top challengers in New York, said: “He’s the most accomplished distance runner in the world; he can do what he wants. He supersedes the sport.”

It has proved to be a shrewd business move for Gebrselassie to run marathons designed more for records than head-to-head competition, said Alberto Salazar, Ritzenhein’s coach and a three-time winner of the New York City Marathon.

“If he’s going for a world record and everyone else is running, they’re just going to sit on you and you end up doing all the work and they pick you off at the end,” Salazar said.
“Financially, he might get half a million bucks for breaking a record and another half-million from sponsors. He’s raced against the best and beaten them at the Olympics. I don’t think he’s ducking competition. This is a business.”

The criticism has been both stinging and inspiring, said Hermens, Gebrselassie’s agent.
“People say he’s afraid to compete,” Hermens said. “OK, we come to New York. He’s not afraid of anyone. Not to say he’s unbeatable, but he’s well trained and motivated. He has nothing to prove, but he still wants to show people he can race and beat people and he’s at the top of his game.”

That seemed apparent in September at the Great North Run, a half-marathon in England that Gebrselassie won by nearly two minutes in 59:33. He seemed free of recent respiratory problems that he believed might have been caused by asthma, bronchitis or allergies but was reluctant to have treated by a doctor.

Finally, in the spring, Hermens said, a Dutch doctor found that the problem was Gebrselassie’s nose, not his lungs. His nasal passages became aggravated by dust or pollen, which restricted his breathing somewhat.  The problem was solved with nasal spray that does not contain any banned, performance-enhancing substances, Hermens said.

Racing for the first time in the New York City Marathon, Gebrselassie will be considered both a favourite and an unknown quantity. Will he blow everyone away? Struggle on the undulating course? He has trained on various surfaces and plans to wear shoes that are softer than the usual racing flats.

“My training has gone well,” Gebrselassie said. “I don’t know how fast I can run, but New York is not important for the time; it is important to win the race. If you are a really good marathoner, you have to run New York.”

At his best, Gebrselassie would be almost impossible to beat, Salazar said. But New York is not like Berlin with its smooth, flat roads and rabbits setting the pace and cyclists pedaling alongside the runners, handing them fluids so they do not have to break stride in pursuit of records.

“New York is the antithesis of Berlin,” said Mary Wittenberg, director of the New York City Marathon. “The terrain is the great equalizer.” At some point, on a friendlier course, Gebrselassie still believes he could lower his world record by 30 seconds to a minute. And he plans to run the Olympic marathon in London in 2012. But first comes New York. A victory would surpass his manufactured world record, said Rosa, Wanjiru’s agent.

“One hundred percent it would be more impressive,” Rosa said. “Because it would be in a race against some of the best marathoners in the world.”

(Published 30 October 2010, 14:02 IST)

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