Haile Gebrselassie turns sights on Ethopian presidency
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.”
Running man: Haile Gebrselassie prepares to embark on a morning session in the Entoto Mountains Photo: GEOFF PUGH