I remember the first time I met Haile Gebrselassie, the 37-year-old Ethiopian distance running legend who shocked the running world Sunday when he announced his retirement after dropping out of the New York City Marathon at the 16-mile mark. I was among a throng of journalists leaving a press conference at the 2008 Beijing Olympics about Liu Xiang, the Chinese hurdler who had won the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in '04 and subsequently shouldered the expectations of a billion Chinese fans.
Liu had just dropped out of the Olympics. The 110-meter hurdle final had been sold out for years, and Chinese officials had sequestered Liu in the lead up to the Games, allowing no information about his inflamed right Achilles tendon to seep out into the world. But when he finally appeared on the Olympic track, he could hardly limp, and a few steps out of the blocks was all it took for him to walk back into the tunnel, head in hands. Liu was not present at the press conference, but his normally staid coach broke down in tears at the podium, no doubt crushed under the weight of expectations.
As Liu's coach left the press conference room, hundreds of cameras and notebooks, mine among them, followed him out in a frenzied mosh pit. In the chaos, I got pushed up against someone and pinned to a wall in the Bird's Nest stadium. When most of the crowd passed, I turned around to see who I was semi-crushing: Haile Gebrselassie, wearing that famous cheekbone-to-cheekbone smile that's so giant it nearly closes his eyes. "Why is he crying?" Gebrselassie asked rhetorically about Liu's coach. "This is sport!" It was an amazingly rational sentiment from a man whose life is a testament to the transformative power of sports success: his 27 world record performances and the money that came with them took him from a rural life as the son of a farmer to a national hero who has chosen to invest all his earnings in his home country, building two schools that serve 1,200 kids and establishing businesses from a fitness center to a resort that employ over 600 people.
But that's Haile, always ready to pat a competitor on the back and remind them that sport can't be scripted and that there are other races to come. Even this week, in the lead up to his much anticipated New York City Marathon debut, Haile said over and over that he planned to come back and try to win New York in 2011 if he could not do it in 2010. But coming downhill off the Queensboro Bridge from Queens to midtown Manhattan, something changed. Haile took a few wobbly steps and moved to the side of the bridge, his race done. The right knee tendonitis started two weeks ago in Ethiopia, and became severe enough that he had to have an MRI and get fluid drained from his knee the day before the race.
His impact on the psyche of the other runners in the marathon was apparent. The race was slow early on as the top competitors shadowed Haile to a pedestrian pace, not wanting to let the favorite leave their sight. Within seconds of Gebrselassie's dropping out, Moroccan Abderrahime Bouramdane took flight, stretching out the pack with a sub-4:30 mile that a number of runners followed. Even in a race he could not finish, it seemed that Gebrselassie's presence made the race. "When some guys looked back and didn't see Haile," said Meb Keflezighi, the American who won the race in 2009, "they went for it. They wanted to get away from Haile." But the respect he is afforded by his countrymen was such that Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam, who went on to win the race, slowed momentarily to talk to Haile before following the breakaway. "I said 'Hey Haile, come on," Gebremariam recalled after the race. "But he said, 'I can't move Gebre. You have to go catch them now.'"
After the race, for the first time the man known as "The Emperor" did not flash that smile and shake off the questions about a disappointing performance with a happy Ethiopian rendition of "I'll get 'em next time." Gebrselassie had dropped out last time he was in this town as well, at the New York City Half-Marathon in March, bothered by a cold and a bout of asthma, and there was suddenly something different about him. Before the questions even came, he looked at the floor and said that "I'm a little bit unhappy," which for a man who emanates happiness, win or lose, means he's a lot unhappy. "When I announce this, maybe everybody becomes a little bit shocked," he continued. "I myself don't want to complain [about injuries or illness] anymore after this, which means it's better to stop here."
It has long been true that Gebrselassie has nothing to prove. He has set world records in every long-distance event that he has competed in, from 3K to the marathon. He is one of those transcendental sports figures that can exist only once. Not because others won't run as fast -- most of his records have already been broken -- but because, like Babe Ruth, who invented the homerun, Gebrselassie invented the modern distance world record. He ensured that any athlete hoping even to sniff a record would have to finish with a dead sprint off of a break neck pace. He left the 5,000-meter race 19 seconds faster than he found it; the 10,000-meters 30 seconds faster, and he is still the only man to have dipped under two hours and four minutes for the marathon. The question now is whether his retirement will stick, or whether it was merely an emotional decision that might be reversed -- just two days ago he was talking about London 2012 -- when he has a chance to reflect. "I told Haile that we're not accepting resignations today," said race director Mary Wittenberg. "He lives in a whole different world than most professional athletes today. He doesn't have machines to fix injuries. He's just such a talent that he's never dealt with that...with two weeks to go, a knee injury happens to mere mortals." It's the use of the word "mortal" that seems so unfamiliar when it comes to Gebrselassie.
Whether or not New York was really his last race, a modicum of the customary Gebrselassie cheer and enthusiasm for the sport was already oozing back later on Sunday. Gebrselassie started his New York stint on Thursday, waiting a half hour after he landed at JFK Airport so that he could greet Edison Pena, the rescued Chilean miner who decided to run the marathon. Shortly after his retirement announcement, Gebrselassie wanted to know when Pena would finish so that he might hug him at the finish line. Unfortunately, the knee injury got in the way.