A lambent dawn light bleeds across the crest of the Entoto Hills, flickering delicately through the eucalyptus trees to cast a glow upon the runner below. Haile Gebrselassie has glided through these mountain groves since adolescence, bounding past children fetching water from the communal well, past elegant Ethiopian women bearing branches for a few precious birr per day.“When you see life in the countryside, you see a type of running everywhere,” he says, absorbing the serenity of the scene. “It could be a journey to school, or an errand for a parent. People assume I started athletics at 14, but this is all I have known since two.”
Here on the plateau atop Mount Entoto, the chaotic and colourful tapestry of Addis Ababa unfurls below. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, even a few tentative strides can stretch the untested lungs to an emphysemic wheeze, and yet Gebrselassie is about to run 15 miles for a light morning constitutional. At 40, his elastic 8½-stone frame propels him remorselessly onwards, up hill and down dale, as he refuses to let the competitive fire flicker and die. “I must sweat,” he explains. “Sometimes my training is hell, but it has to be. You need a target to encourage you. My motivation is to surprise people.”
This ebullient soul, author of 27 world records, is poised to unleash his greatest surprise yet. An emblematic figure for Ethiopians, who glad-hand him at every turn, he exerts the type of transcendent influence that could yet inspire a push for the presidency. “One of my profits, my achievements, is to be recognised in a good way by these people,” he confides. “This is one of the things that a human being needs.”
Restless to acquaint at least some of his benighted homeland with the middle-class privilege he has acquired, Gebrselassie says: “I have seen so much, and I would like a chance to share this experience with the people. I have visited over 100 countries – how many in Ethiopia can claim to have done that? Very few, no more than 10.” One diplomatic source notes: “The average person associates Ethiopia with three things: famine, Bob Geldof, and Haile Gebrselassie.”
In a repressive political climate, where only one opposition member is accepted into the 547-seat parliament, he could create a potent unifying effect. “Sometimes politicians say too much about what they’re doing,” he argues. “But sport is black and white: either you win or lose, either you break a record or not. You cannot tell people more than you have achieved. In politics, you can say a lot.”
So he believes he could have immediate impact? “I think so. I can demonstrate that the impossible is possible.” What of the top job? “Who knows? That’s a future plan,” he replies, flashing that toothy, mischievous grin.
For all the cachet of his two Olympic 10,000 metre golds in Atlanta and Sydney, Gebrselassie is a man ferociously attached to his roots. On a visit to his palatial home on the outskirts of Addis he pads across the marble floors in the vivid green, gold and red of his national training strip, resembling an upside-down traffic light. He is a lavishly hospitable host even if the family pet, one rather skittish goat, roams in the garden to extend the air of endearing eccentricity.
“In Ethiopia we are still a long way behind,” he admits. “You cannot change this country in two to three years, it might take 30. But we dream to be different. My idea is to reach more people, communicate with more people than ever before. I am known as an athlete, but what else? I don’t want to limit myself in only this way. I became a runner from nowhere. I was nobody. If you looked at me 20 years ago, I was just another person, but now I work with over 1,000 people. I have seen how it happens.”
The confronting poverty that prevails in Ethiopia is manifested on his own street, where his four-storey house stands opposite a row of corrugated iron shacks. It is thrown into sharp relief, too, on the three-hour drive from downtown Addis to his home village of Asella, nestled west of Mount Chilalo in the verdant centre of the Great Rift Valley. Roadblocks of cattle and donkeys repeatedly force our 4x4 off the tarmac, while malnourished mothers in rags hold their pails aloft in the endless and sapping search for water. For the first time Gebrselassie is returning to his rural elementary school, ready to impart the wisdom of one who escaped his straitened upbringing through a supreme athletic gift.
One of 10 children, he would run six miles to his classes and back every day, making an even longer detour when the summer rains flooded the riverbed that traversed his route. Borrowing his father’s transistor radio, he heard the crackly broadcast that would prove to be his epiphany, as countryman Miruts Yifter seized the Olympic 5,000m title in Moscow. Aged just seven, his life’s vocation was forged.
“In 1980 I thought, 'How can I be like him, the kind of person he is?’ So I entered the 1,500m for my school even though the teacher insisted I was too young. I said, 'No, give me a chance’. And from the gun, I went away from the whole field.
“The headteacher called me up on stage for prize-giving and I became very famous, locally. One moral I understand about sport is that finding a talent you can earn respect for is worth more than anything. It encouraged me, it brought me up from zero.”
This message is one he proselytises with zeal. On Gebrselassie’s trail here are five of the 14 ambitious athletes whom he has mentored since 2007, under the G4S '4teen’ programme, and in whom he has inculcated the same work ethic that propels him to run 100 miles a week on grain, lean meat and sheer inexhaustible energy. One protégé, Colombia’s Mariana Pajón, beat British cyclist Shanaze Reade to claim Olympic BMX gold in London last summer. Another, the intense but charming Nigerian Obinna Metu, harbours a restless dream of emulating Usain Bolt.
His 100m personal best of 10.11sec might be comfortably adrift of Bolt’s, but Metu managed to immerse himself in the great Jamaican’s counsel on a recent foray to Kingston. What he discovered there has been augmented, even enriched, by Gebrselassie’s teachings, giving the lie to any idea that sprinters and distance-runners do not mix. “A legend is a legend, a star is a star,” says the 24-year-old, a devout Christian and the first in his family to graduate from university. “What I learned from Usain is the same as I would learn from Haile. What makes you a champion is how you live your life. I believe his support was God-sent.”
A day in Gebrselassie’s life would, indeed, reduce a lesser mortal to an enfeebled husk. Only after bouncing along the steep Entoto paths of mud and scree for the best part of two hours is he primed to start the day proper, tending to a business empire encompassing everything from coffee beans to the property company he runs with his wife, Alem.
So Stakhanovite is his work ethic that his example can hardly fail to be transmitted to students such as Metu. “I wake at 5am, I never sleep beyond then,” Gebrselassie explains. “You have to put in the hardest work, and Obinna must know what type of discipline he needs. I am trying to teach these athletes to be successful, what they need to be world and Olympic champions. How can you become the best artist without discipline, the best doctor without commitment?”
Gebrselassie, for his part, is conscious that he can never stop running. He tried it once, famously, announcing his farewell at a tearful, impromptu press conference after limping out of the New York Marathon in 2010. But he had even not discussed the decision with his family, or with his long-time manager Jos Hermens, and the news detonated in his native Ethiopia like a thunderbolt.
“I was asked: 'What happened?’” he recalls. “It was, I just could not finish. I was too emotional. I thought, 'If running is like this, I had better stop here.’ So I retired. It meant just to stop competing, not to stop running. But when I came home, everybody was shouting at me. They respected my decision but the way I announced it was not what they expected. I suppose there was so much disappointment inside. Plus, I always like to do things by myself, not at the request of somebody else.”
That familiar single-mindedness has rendered Gebrselassie an athlete of astonishing longevity. In 2008, aged 35, he broke his last world record at the Berlin Marathon with a time of two hours, three minutes and 59 minutes – only Kenya’s Patrick Makau, surpassing the feat on the same course last summer, has ever covered 26.2 miles quicker. Sanguine at being stripped of this distinction, Gebrselassie acknowledges that the loss of his 10,000m record does still agitate him.
Remembering the sultry night in the Dutch city of Hengelo 15 years ago, when he stunned the Dutch crowd by running 26:22, he says: “I should have seen it was a good day. I was not just in good shape, I was running every lap at record pace, so it should have been 26:10. But I don’t complain.” Lest he lapse into too much reminiscence, Gebrselassie is kept in check by his impish seven-year-old son Nathan, who tells him out loud in the family living room: “Daddy, just because you’re a runner it doesn’t mean we have to be, too.”
Entering his fifth decade, Gebrselassie finds that his ambitions have burgeoned. He owns a hotel, a cinema, a car showroom, runs two primary schools, and preaches the transforming power of athletics through the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s largest mass race. “Ten years ago I would have said it was impossible, but today I work with over 1,000 people,” he says. No wonder that is drifting ineluctably towards the political orbit. Once he had a stop-clock to watch, now a whole country to try to fix. As he puts it, firmly: “If I find that I have a better solution, a better way, then I will do it.” Ethiopia, meet your president-in-waiting.