The worldwide takeaway from Haile Gebrselassie's fourth-place finish in last weekend's Tokyo Marathon was that the man many consider to be the greatest distance runner in history had probably missed his final chance to compete in one last Olympic Games. Gebrselassie, 38, faded from the lead and ran 2:08:17; three other Ethiopians have already run 2:05 or faster this year, which makes it highly unlikely that Gebrselassie will be selected to the national team for the London Games.
A more appropriate analysis would have focused on the remarkable fact that a man of Gebrselassie's age was in contention for an Olympic berth some 16 years after he won his first gold medal, in the 10,000 meters on a rock-hard track in the stifling heat of Atlanta. His has been a career of unprecedented length and quality, spanning distances from the 1,500 meters (in which he won the 1999 world indoor title) to the marathon (in which he twice set the world best). Gebrselassie tore through the record book for more than a decade, carrying a tiny body (5' 5", 123 pounds) with a metronomic stride. From 1995 through '98 he broke world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 three times each. When Gebrselassie moved up to the marathon, he ran world bests in the Berlin marathons of '07 (2:04:26) and '08 (2:03:59), the latter since broken. He remains the only man to run faster than 2:05 three times.
Yet the enduring Gebrselassie image for most fans is his second 10,000-meter Olympic gold, at Sydney in 2000. Seemingly beaten in the home stretch by Kenyan Paul Tergat, Gebrselassie summoned a brilliant kick to overtake Tergat at the line. Gebrselassie, who off the track has become one of his country's leading entrepreneurs, says now that he is not finished trying to make the London team, but there would be no shame in failing. His legacy is towering, and secure.