Tales of a champion

Legendary long-distance runner Gebrselassie is a contented man having engineered an African surge.

From running 20 kilometres to school everyday to setting 27 world records, Haile Gebrselassie’s rise to greatness has been chronicled time and again. In fact, part of his struggles were showcased in the movie ‘Endurance’ where the 5’5’’ Ethiopian himself acted and spoke about his hunger to win the Sydney Olympics gold, which he did eventually in one of the best ever finishes witnessed in 10,000 metres.

A two-time Olympic and four-time world champion -- all 10,000 metres -- Gebrselassie also marvelled in marathon where he set the world record twice. An inspiration to many still despite hanging up his boots four years ago, the 41-year-old soft-spoken champion spoke to Deccan Herald, arranged by his sponsor Adidas, on his rivalry with Paul Tergat, the exodus of African athletes to Middle East and his political ambitions. 

Excerpts: 

Great rivalries often define champions. How much did the rivalry with Tergat inspire you to achieve greatness?

Sure, without great rivals you cannot be a champion. You need someone to push you. I think having top rivals is an opportunity for you to excel. I always tell people that without Kenyans there are no Ethiopians and vice-versa. Without Tergat, I may never have become so famous and won so many titles.

One of the best 10,000M race ever witnessed is when you beat Tergat for the gold at the Sydney Olympics. Can you recollect the race for us?

That race was an exceptional one, something that I never planned. I went there (to Sydney) with an injury and just wanted to compete. After the semifinal, I was in a lot of pain. It was very painful in the final, but I just kept going, staying within the hunt. Until the last 300 metres, in fact until 20 metres to the finish, nobody expected Haile to win the race. When Paul moved enough in the last 250 metres and when he came in front of me, I was shocked. I knew Paul was strong but I didn’t expect him to sprint like that. As soon as I finished the curve, I started to push myself and I knew I could catch him. In the end, at the finish line, it was I who crossed first. When I saw the video later, I thought it was unbelievable.

You’ve accomplished so much in your career but what standout according to you?

The gold at the Sydney Olympics. I’ve just explained the race. It is the most amazing race I’ve ever run.

Distance runners have dished out several classic battles over the years. Yet, sprinters mostly hog the limelight at every major event. Why?

Long distance battle is generally confined to the African nations, especially Ethiopia and Kenya. Sprinters hail largely from the Caribbean countries. I think it’s a culture. It’s a difficult question to answer, and I really cannot pinpoint a reason. For example, cricket is so big in India and Pakistan. Maybe that’s the way it is.

After you passed the torch to compatriot Kenenisa Bekele, he carried it brilliantly. Your thoughts on your protege.

When they interview him on what prompted him to start running, he always says its because of me. It’s quite flattering. I always ask myself is it true, because everything that he has achieved is because of his hard work and dedication. Of course, I’ve been a part of his growth but I didn’t expect to bring up such a wonderful and amazing athlete. Do you have any regrets or do you think anything left to be accomplished?

One thing that hurts me is not winning an Olympic Games marathon gold. I really wanted that and to have not done it is quite disappointing. Considering I’ve broken the word record twice, I expected myself to win a marathon medal.

Plenty of African athletes turned up for Middle-Eastern nations during the just-concluded Asian Games in Incheon. The African exodus has been a feature for quite sometime. Your thoughts.

I always believe one should represent the country where they hail from. The current scenario is like English Premier League football where one sees players from various nationalities leading the charge of top English clubs. I think the IAAF need to do something about it. If the Middle-Eastern nations want to win a medal at the Olympics or the Word Championships, they have to groom their own athletes into becoming champions. Another problem is since there is so much competition back home, some of them tend to migrate. But, I don’t think this is the answer to winning medals. 

You expressed a desire to enter politics. How is your political career shaping up?

Right now, I’m focussed on my business but in the future I will enter politics. Next year elections, I want to be in the parliament. But, it’s too early to say anything now. I still have around six months to chart my path, hopefully it goes as desired.

You’ve been a role model to plenty of athletes. But, when you started, who was your role model and why?

My role model was Miruts Yifter. He won the 5,000-10,000M double at the Moscow Olympics and I really started a liking for running after that.


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