Recognition of our mortality, the fact that we die, is probably the most shocking discovery that any of us has to make; sooner or later. Recognition of our sporting mortality can’t be far behind, realisation that the time has come to hang up the racing shoes. That moment came, later than with most, for Haile Gebrselassie last Sunday, following the 37 year old world record holder’s failure to finish in the New York Marathon. There have been immediate and inevitable calls for him to reconsider and return, calls which spring from disbelief that a man who has been around for so long, close to 20 years at the top could drop out, and leave us bereft of the certainty of his continuing excellence. There has even been a suggestion today that he is rethinking his decision. But it was time for him to go. He knew it, and so did a few others. On the morning of the Dubai Marathon last January, his manager announced that Haile had hurt his back while lying awkwardly, watching TV the night before. It seemed a curious thing to say at the time. But given that the race had been advertised as another attempt on his world record, it defrayed expectation and, sure enough, although he did win, in an excellent time of 2.06.09, it was over two minutes outside his record. And the doubts that were raised by that were exacerbated by the news that, immediately prior to the race, he was spotted high-fiving one of his fans over a 6-foot high fence, not something easy to do or even attempt with a bad back. So when last Sunday morning, I read pre-New York Marathon that there was an announcement saying he had fluid on the knee, I emailed a fellow cynic to say he was lining up his latest excuse. I don’t doubt for a moment that he did have fluid on the knee. Dropping out was an inevitable result. But he knew that he had had to get his excuse out first, and that it was the second time in succession that he had done so. He didn’t want or need to do it a third time. It was time to go, and so he has gone. He has left at the top, and he has left an unrivalled record in modern times.
One of the advantages of working almost exclusively on marathons nowadays is that I come into contact not only with the distance running contenders and pretenders, but also with the stars themselves. Although I have known Haile for around 15 years, since I went to visit him in Addis in the mid-1990s, he probably would not have distinguished me from a score of so of itinerant journos until he hit the marathon scene, and began seeing me working for, among others, Berlin and Dubai. Not that that made a huge difference, he has always been accessible to all and sundry. And that covers a lot of sinners. But one anecdote serves to illumine his universal approach. A publicity man for one of the marathons related how he took Haile to a local radio station, where the eager interviewer ended by asking for his phone number. Driving away, the publicity man said, “Of course, that wasn’t your real number”. “Of course it was,” said the public, smiling man. That was one of the big attractions of his expansive personality; he was accessible, to journalists and fans. A former colleague, a renowned columnist on a British national daily, wrote yesterday, that now that he is retired Haile should be made Emperor for real, or even king, which is going a bit far for what is supposed to be a Republic. The last regal figure in those parts was the Queen of Sheba. But my former colleague also wrote that he was going into politics. The man himself says not!
Haile did start talking, two or three years ago, about a political career, to complement his successful business ventures. But when I quizzed him on the subject, in Dubai last January, he emphatically said, “not any more, the minute you announce that you’re going into politics, and you have to take a side, then immediately half the population hates you”. And that’s a hard thing for any national demi-god, as he has been described, to take on the chin. So unless there is a major change of mind on his part, and it would probably be bigger than a return to competition, I suspect that Haile would prefer to remain a demi-god loved by all, than a politician, however successful, yet hated by half of the populace. I was present at many of his triumphs, and maybe managed to turn a good phrase or two in honour of those triumphs. But if I have anything approaching pride at what I have written about Haile, it was the appreciation I fashioned within two hours of his breaking his first marathon world record, in Berlin 2007. With your indulgence, here it is….
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, numerous 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 ultimate 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.