Nineteen years ago, a skinny 15 year old did what millions of country kids over the centuries have done. Haile Gebrselassie went up to the big city, to seek his fortune. He was only in Addis Ababa a couple of days, just long enough to run a marathon and struggle, half crippled from the effort, back home to his village 175 kilometres away. He would start running again a week later, when the pain subsided, and the dreams of success returned. But even he could not have dreamed that what began with a 2hrs 48min marathon round the back streets of Addis, admittedly at altitude, would presage a career which, thus far has netted him 24 world records, the latest coming in Berlin on Sunday morning, at that same marathon distance, but his time some 44 minutes faster, in 2.04.26.
“It was the only race I could find,” he said, recalling his first tribulation an hour after his latest triumph. “I ran in street shoes, with plastic soles, and only finished because there were no cars, there was no other way to get back to the start. The next day, my brother put me on a bus back to Arsela, but the bus stopped several kilometres from my village, and I had to walk. I don’t know how I did it”. Nearly 20 years on, he still grimaces at the memory, but we all know how he did it. With the same resolve that has resulted in two Olympic golds, four world titles, indoors and out, innumerable victories on road and track. Oh yes, and the little matter of those 24 world records.
If we were quibbling, we’d say that he should win the Olympic marathon next year, in order to completely dismiss any doubts that he is the greatest distance runner of all time. But a man who can take a world title at 1500 metres (indoors), as he did in 1999, 18 months prior to a second Olympic 10,000 metres title that he should never have won (of which more later), coupled with this latest exploit on the streets of Berlin should go a long way to bolstering his considerable claim to be ‘The Greatest’.
He is certainly the greatest of this modern era, and there are really only two men who can compete for that ulimate accolade. Emil Zatopek of the then Czechoslovakia won four Olympic golds, three at the same Olympics in Helsinki 1952, with an unrepeatable treble (even for a Gebrselassie) of the 5000, 10,000 metres and the marathon, the last one on his debut, no less. It was Zatopek who coined the immortal summation of the marathon, “If you want to run, try a hundred metres, if you want to experience another life, try a marathon”.
Asked about world records, Geb himself had said something similar prior to this Berlin race. “In the 5000 and 10,000 metres, you are running against the clock and the opposition. In the marathon, you are running against the distance itself”. It’s no surprise that men like Zata and Geb should come up with stuff like that. You have time to ruminate, if not in the marathon itself, then in all the miles and kilometres that you do in preparation. Because, no matter how good your back-up, or how many pals you can persuade to accompany you on those treks, inevitably you do most of it by yourself.
It so happens that Geb and Zata share very similar characters, or rather shared, since Zatopek died half a dozen years ago. Like Geb, he was open, friendly, always happy to give succour and advice, in Zata’s case, often in the middle of a race. The only other runner who could put them both in the shade was Paavo Nurmi. The Flying Finn, winner of nine Olympic golds, yes, NINE, was by all acounts a remote, sullen, introspective character. Perhaps that’s why he is reported to have said at the end of his life that he felt that it had all been a waste. Maybe, like those first astronauts after going to the moon, when you’ve won nine Olympic golds, there’s nowhere else to go. Perhaps we should be happy we’re not overachievers, huh? Geb seems very happy to be an overachiever, that’s one of the pleasures of sharing his company as well as admiring his running. A smile is rarely far from his face, and you can believe both him and that equally winning personality, Paul Tergat, the Kenyan from whom he wrested the marathon record in Berlin. On the same course in 2003, Tergat had run 2.04.55. Immediately after watching Geb demolish it on television, Tergat rang his friend from Kenya to congratulate him. “Sorry Paul,” said Geb, and he meant it. They both mean it when they call each other ‘friend’. It says much for Tergat. He is in the same situation as Bing Crosby, who when asked about Frank Sinatra, replied, “He’s the greatest crooner of his era. Pity it had to be my era as well”.
Tergat did manage something that Geb never did, in fact he managed to win the World Cross five times, while Geb never won it once. But Tergat lost to Geb in two of the greatest Olympic 10,000 metres races that this writer has ever witnessed, in Atlanta 1996, and Sydney 2000. It was the latter race which defined Gebrselassie for me. He had been badly injured some months before, had only effected a comeback shortly prior to the Olympics, and would have been in no shape to cope with Tergat, had the Kenyan thought to reproduce the tactics of Atlanta, where he had run the second 5000 metres over half a minute faster than the first half, in an attempt to run the legs off Geb. But the Ethiopian was in prime form in Atlanta, and swept past to victory. That must have laid the doubts in Tergat’s mind. Never a fast finisher, he worked and worked his speed in 2000, such that he felt he could outsprint the Ethiopian in Sydney. Tergat ran steadily, and shot away with 300 metres to run. Geb clawed it back gradually, and inched past to victory. Again! But he admitted again after his Berlin Marathon victory, “Paul would have won easily if had used the tactics of Atlanta”. “He won with his head that time,” added friend and business associate, former British marathoner, Richard Nerurkar, who travelled from Addis to support his pal.
Speaking of pals, complimentary to a fault, Geb repeatedly thanked the crowds in Berlin for helping him to victory. His estimates of the value of their support ranged from, “Fifty per cent,” right after the race, to, “60 to 70 per cent,” at his press conference, an hour later. But, whatever help you get from your friends, when you’re a marathon runner, and a marathon winner, and now, a marathon world record holder, deep down you know. It’s all your own work. And no one deserves it more.