Ethiopian distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie is one of the great athletes his sport has ever seen. He won the 10,000 meters at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000. He also won seven medals, including four golds, at the world outdoor championships over the years. In September 2008, Gebrselassie ran the still-current world best in the marathon of two hours, three minutes, 59 seconds, breaking his own mark by 27 seconds. He will turn 37 in April, and though an asthma attack forced him to pull out of the New York Half Marathon last weekend, he remains committed to running the marathon at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Gebrselassie sat down for an interview over the weekend. The text follows ...
Q: Will you be focused on the road or the track in the next few years?
HG: I think the road. These days, I've lost a little bit of speed. If I come back to track, I might have more injuries. I want to avoid injuries by running only road. Of course I can run track, but not 5,000 and not 10,000. I can do longer distance like one hour. It doesn't give me any problem. We'll see. Soon maybe I'll run one hour on the track.
Q: You look so at ease before races. Do you ever get nervous?
HG: It depends on my training. If I don't train enough, of course I'm nervous. The word come and goes with confidence. If you're confident, that means you can win. When I'm on the starting line, I'm seeing people thinking, "what's going on? But I wanted sunny weather."
Q: The smile on your face is consistent. Are you as happy as you look? Are you ever in pain?
HG: When I run, in the beginning of the race, don't ask me. Especially after halfway, in the marathon, it's painful. The marathon always starts after 30K. That's where the problems start. You start without any problems, without any pain. All the pain comes after 30K. Sometimes, it's possible to have pain even in the finger.
Q: Can you describe how you feel when you cross the finish line.
HG: It depends. If I break the world record, wow. You forget the pain immediately. But if your plan doesn't happen, you start to complain. Especially after you win the race, it's like sometimes if you have many responsibilities, it's like you achieve what's expected of you. The marathon is 42K , you know. When you run, when you think about 42, it's hard. What's important, the Ethiopians, the Kenyans are training for four hours. I don't recommend that. I went training for four hours one time, the feeling is like a kind of suicide. What I research of my tactical program, more than three hours is not good. When I started training for the marathon, I did some four-hour training, but I stop immediately. After the four-hour training, the following day was a very bad day. All day, things come down. My recommendation is three hours maximum, not more than 35K on the road. Some athletes train for four hours, which is killing themselves.
Before I ran the marathon, only three runners ran 2:06. Since I start, many run 2:06, 2:07. Many of the Ethiopians are competing with Kenyans now. Kenyans were the standard. Now we are coming. Many Ethiopians see what I did with 2:05, 2:04 [his world best is 2:03:59] and they copy. The next two or three years, you will see more Ethiopian marathoners. We have 50 good people at least.
Q: How many years away are we from a two-hour marathon?
HG: At least 25 years.
Q: And 2:02?
Q: Can you talk about your rivalry with [Kenya's] Paul Tergat over the years?
HG: During the race, it's a kind of peac[ful] fight. Let me give an example. Here in America they have basketball rivals, the Lakers and Celtics. Internally, they hate each other. But one needs the other. One is not strong without the other. We need the Kenyans. The Kenyans need the Ethiopians. The rivalry gives you more strength. When we think about each other, maybe we hate each other. If you think about Atlanta, without Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat had a chance to win a gold medal. He should say "I hate Haile." I took his gold. But I have to say thank you to Paul. Surprisingly, we are good friends. When Paul comes to Addis and when I go to Nairobi, we stay together. It's a sport. We think about rivalry for sport.
Q: Do you think about coaching afterwards?
HG: I don't think so. I want to keep the great Ethiopian run going. We have many coaches. I also don't want to be a race director. If you are a race director, you think about many athletes. If you are an athlete, you think about yourself.
Q: Speaking of your rivalry with Paul, one of our colleagues recently listed the highlights of your career in a column and he placed the 10,000 race at the Sydney Olympics, where you outkicked him as No. 1. Do you agree?
HG: I agree with that. The Sydney one was different. I can say it was my best moment or most memorable. I cannot forget that. If you look at the video, Paul really had that race won. I won many races by working hard. But that race came from God. Tergat did everything. If you look at the video, he is already close to the line, I came back somehow by nine-hundredths of a second. It's never been that close between gold and silver.
In Sydney, Paul should have used the same tactic he used in Atlanta. You remember in Atlanta, he moved with five laps to go. But he was waiting for me in Sydney. He had done a lot of speedwork. You have to find an athlete's weakness. My weakness used to endurance, but he didn't take advantage of that.
Q: How do you like the half-marathon?
HG: It's the race I like the most. I have run many and lost only one. It's between the 10K and the marathon. You have to combine endurance and speed.
Q: Should it be an Olympic distance?
HG: I cannot say that. The half is a race for marathon runners. If you add it, the marathon runners will be confused. They'll think they can run it, but what about the marathon. I think for the Olympics, they should keep the history.
Q: How is your back? You hurt it recently before a marathon in Dubai. Is it better?
HG: I didn't know what happened. The night before the race, I slept in a different position. The race was early the next day. I could not sleep until midnight. I tried to sleep on my stomach. When I woke up, it felt like one of my bones was in a different position.
Q: Did you feel it during the race?
HG: Even before the race it hurt. I had a massage. Everyone was at breakfast at around 4 a.m. and my coach came up to my room asking what happened to me. I told him something was wrong.
Q: What's your status for the London Marathon coming up?
HG: I will not run London now. I'm allergic to the pollen flower. It's a good thing about 2012 [at the next Olympics], the marathon is on the 12th of August.
Q: Were you disappointed afterwards you didn't run the marathon in Beijing? You were concerned about the pollution, but on the actually day it wasn't as bad.
HG: I ran 10,000 in Beijing, so because of that I had a chance to break a world record a month later. If I had run the marathon in Beijing, that would have been my last race of the year, so that's how I look at it.
Q: Do you think about entering politics at all?
HG: It's difficult. Let me do some other jobs first. If I become a politician, I have to stop those jobs.
Q: What would you want to do five years from now?
HG: Still running, preparing for Rio. If people ask five years, 10 years, 20, I say still running. Athletes make a mistake I think when they put a deadline for when they retire. You cannot. The date when they put the deadline, that's the date when they stop running in their minds. I don't know when I'll stop running, but let it come by itself. Sport doesn't ask your age. Look what [Ethiopia's] Mamo Walde did. He won Mexico at 39. Miruts Yifter, Rob DeCastella, Carlos Lopes, they all won at a later age.
Q: Do you take breaks in training?
HG: Once a week, I have an easy training day, usually Sunday. For me a day without training is like a day without eating. Of course some days I have appointments I must keep. But in the morning when I wake up at 5:30, I have nothing to do but train. The afternoon training, when I have meetings.
Q: How is the building of your hotel affecting your training?
HG: Well, the good thing is it's not in Addis, where I live. You can reserve at haileresort.com.
Q: When you had your operation, a surgery on your leg,, how did you stay in shape?
HG: Biking and running in water at the gym.
Q: If you weren't running, would you do another sport?
HG: No, just watching. I like watching boxing and a little bit of soccer.
Q: Is there a boxer you like the most.
HG: I'd say Evander Holyfield.
Q: Who were other people you admire in other walks of life?
HG: Of course Nelson Mandela. I have many reasons. He teaches you patience, forgiveness, everything. Mandela is not only for Africa; he is for everyone. Anyone can learn a lot from this man. Life gave him a lot of things, good and bad. We can learn a lot from that kind of man.
Q: Did you ever meet him?
HG: One time he came to the world cross-country meet in 1996. I shook his hand and he signed his book. I was not yet Olympic champion.
Q: You have done a lot for people in Ethiopia, in the spirit of Mandela, helping people with jobs and so on ...
HG: In the future, when you send things to Africa, don't send things that make us lazy. Food is a temporary solution. A solution that lasts must be a transfer of knowledge. I like the saying, "Don't give a man a fish; show him how to fish." That's why I'm trying to do something to help people with permanent solutions.
Sometimes my son falls and my wife is quick to pick him up. Let him fall down and stand by himself. It is good for his confidence. A boy must pick himself up, so he picks himself up as a man.
Q: Tell me about your other businesses.
HG: My main business is real estate. I'm building different office blocks and shops. I have schools. I divide my businesses into two. One is to make money and the other is to get a satisfaction for people. The school is not to make money, but I have to do it to contribute and do as an Ethiopian for the country. I have two schools, but not in Addis. One is 500 kilometers from Addis; the other is when I was born [in Asella].
Q: How many people have you created jobs for?
HG: It's about 600.
Q: But even though you find jobs for people -- even create jobs to suit their skills -- you don't give away money. What is your philosophy behind that?
HG: This is born with me. I never ask for free help with friends. When I started running, my brother gave me a pair of shoes, but then he wanted to do more. I told him after I won my first race, "I'm okay. I have to do the rest by myself. It is up to me."
Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm trying to encourage people to do for themselves. Other people will not always be there for you, but you will always be there for yourself. It is in the Bible where it says do unto others. I also say don't do unto others what you wouldn't want done to yourself. I don't people's generosity to make me lazy.
Q: Does your wife, Alem, still handle a lot of your business arrangements?
HG: She's the business manager. When I'm away, she does everything.
Q: What are the other businesses?
HG: Importing cars, cinema, business center.
Q: When will the new hotel open?
HG: Next week it's finished. It will be operational in April, before our elections in May. Haileresort.com
Q: What businesses you like to start in the future?
HG: I'm moving to farming. Our economy depends on farms. So I want to create a stable farming business.
Q: You have four kids. Are any of them runners yet?
HG: No, my oldest daughter is 12 and she wants to be a scientist. That's good, too. My other children are ten, eight and four.
Q: Your posture is unique because your left hand is lower when you run.
HG: That comes from my school. I tried to change it, but I couldn't I ran carrying ten books for ten kilometers, so I run with my left hand lower, still today.
Q: Did you have a favorite book growing up?
HG: I liked history books that had people with wisdom? I like to learn from famous writers, famous kings. What made them different?
Q: Do you care where you are in the list of great distance runners: Nurmi, Zatopek, maybe Bekele now?
HG: Yes, of course. This is history. It's wonderful to be a part of that. Sport is a special part of any culture's history. I am honored by this and I am grateful people would say such things.