The impressive career of Haile Gebrselassie takes quite a while to take in: two Olympic victories and four World Championship titles over 10,000m, another three World Indoor Championship wins over 3000m and even one at 1500m (!) as well as 27 World records and World bests, including the current World Marathon record of 2:03:59. What is striking about these achievements is that they are by no means the whole story.
What makes Gebrselassie so distinctive and such an outstanding personality in world sport is his entrepreneurial spirit, the intensity of his professional schedule, his personal warmth when he meets other people and his sense of social engagement – all this while simultaneously leading a successful career as a runner at the highest level for two decades.
After recovering from a knee injury which forced him to withdraw from the Tokyo Marathon, Gebrselassie is back in solid training for his next race, the Vienna City Marathon on 17 April where he’ll contest the Half Marathon in a unique chase race where he’ll attempt the catch the marathon field, who'll have a head start, over the race's first half. * Ever the fierce competitor, he’s eagerly looking forward to the challenge. “Feeling great, no problems with my knee anymore and eager to race again,” he recently said via Twitter.
But he’s got plenty other business to attend to as well.
Haile the businessman
The first thing you notice when you visit him in Addis Ababa is that Gebrselassie is a busy and successful businessman. Since 1995 he has invested earnings from his success on the track in establishing companies. Today he is at the head of a concern with 600 staff and is in the office every day. His mobile phone never stops ringing. His business interests include offices in Addis Ababa and other cities, a cinema and fitness centre in the capital, a hotel resort at Lake Awassa and the dealership for Hyundai cars in Ethiopia.
Family ahead of running and business
The World record holder’s working schedule is as tightly packed as you’d expect. A conversation in his office on the eighth floor of the company’s headquarters on Bole Road was interrupted several times by staff members who needed his signature on letters, documents and cheques. Business had to be attended to, even if visitors were present.
Apart from that he has a family life with his wife Alem, who also takes an active role in their joint business concerns, their three girls, Eden (14), Melat (12), and Batiy (10) and son Nathan (5), as well as coping with training for whatever happens to be his next race.
“Family always comes first for me, then running, then business,” is how he describes his priorities.
Discipline the key to success
So how does he perform his balancing act?
“Discipline is the most important part,” he said. “Without discipline you can’t achieve anything, talent alone is not enough. Many runners squander their talent and are only successful for a short time. You have to get the most out of it.”
His longtime manager, Jos Hermens, knows only too well how Gebrselassie often has to strike a balance between these various demands upon his time.
“It’s been a subject of friendly strife between us for years,” Hermens said. “I say he should pay less attention to business and concentrate more on running. But when he needs to be, he is incredibly disciplined. Two months before a race, sport is always centre stage.”
A people’s hero
Wherever he goes, the world’s best known runner is the centre of attention. Children wave to him when he drives home from the office in Addis Ababa – in a well maintained Mercedes which, by the way, he won with his first world title in Stuttgart in 1993. People approach him, want to touch him, exchange a few words, talk about their troubles, have their picture taken with him. Gebrselassie - and this is his strength as well as weakness - rarely ever says, “No.”
Europe’s wealth was the incentive
Just looking at his origins explains what drives him. It’s about 20 years since Gebrselassie saw first hand the material abundance in the northern hemisphere when he ran his first international race. He was mere slip of a lad, 18 years of age, when he qualified for the national junior squad and went to the World Cross Country in Belgium. He ran in Antwerp on 24 March, 1991 and finished eighth in the junior race.
“When I look back at that time, I remember that my biggest problem was finding decent clothing for the journey,” he reminisces. “Every time I saw the standard of living and prosperity in other countries, it was a big incentive for me to start my own business in Ethiopia.”
Education to combat poverty
As someone who grew up in very basic conditions in the countryside, he isn’t just talking about his business ventures which are helping the country develop by providing jobs. Gebrselassie has founded two schools, one in his home town of Assela and a second in Bahir Dar in the beautiful setting of Lake Tana.
“Assela is one of the regions where people don’t have much. We pay for a lot of children’s education, clothing and books if the parents cannot afford them.”
“Education is the key to combating poverty,” is how he describes his social commitment.
Beaming eyes in the schoolroom
It’s easiest to understand why Gebrselassie has become a people’s hero and role model for Ethiopians when you’re there. You see a Gebrselassie away from microphones and television cameras but he is just as friendly and approachable as when in the public eye.
In Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia 1200 children and young people go to the “ADM School”, named after Gebrselassie’s mother Ayelech Degefu who died when she was very young. When it was founded ten years ago, the school had just 40 children.
When Gebrselassie visits, the entire school gathers round and puts on a display of songs, recitations and announcements over the public address system. He goes around shaking hands and patting heads, his and the pupils’ eyes beaming. He discusses with the director the next step in the school’s expansion. He meets the parents’ association over a meal. He also talks with the teachers, encouraging and thanking them for their work.
“This is about a sense of responsibility and the satisfaction of being able to do something for my country,” he says proudly. “If I set about something, I always want to do something which is going to make a real difference.”
All-time ranking? “Perhaps I’m No. 10!”
He’s undoubtedly achieved that in running as well, where he remains as committed as ever to his career. As ever, he aims for the pinnacle.
“I want to win Olympic gold in the Marathon in London in 2012,” he says without beating about the bush.
When it comes to the much discussed question of who is the greatest distance runner of all time, Gebrselassie offers his own personal ranking: number one is his compatriot Abebe Bikila, who won two consecutive Olympic marathons, each with world record times. He awards second place to the Finn Paavo Nurmi, third to Emil Zatopek. And where would he put himself?
“Perhaps I’m at number ten,” he says with a touch of understatement and can’t help laughing. But in all seriousness he adds, “Let me finish my career first, then others can judge!”
Andreas Meier for the IAAF
* Correction on 7 April. We apologise for and regret the error.