Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie is one of the world's fastest runners and has held several world records in long-distance events. A two-time Olympic gold medalist in the men's 10,000-meter race, Gebrselassie is also a top marathon runner and set a new world record time of 2:04:26 with his win in the 2007 Berlin Marathon. Like many of the world's best runners, he hails from a part of the African continent known for both its high altitude and dire poverty, and he has invested his earnings in several business ventures back in his homeland as a mission to create jobs, end famine, and improve the lives of ordinary Ethiopians.
Born in 1973, Gebrselassie grew up near the town of Asela, in the Arsi zone in central Ethiopia. His earliest years were a time of political upheaval: In 1974 the country's longtime monarchy was ousted by a Communist military dictatorship, which then engaged in a brutal campaign, known as the Red Terror, to root out dissent. Thousands, including the emperor, were killed. A period of famine followed in the early 1980s. Although the Arsi area was not one of the hardest hit, Gebrselassie recalled his early years as a time of abject poverty. His father owned some livestock and could grow a few crops when the weather cooperated, but Gebrselassie, his five brothers, and four sisters were all expected to pitch in, especially after their mother died from cancer in 1979, the year Gebrselassie turned six. "My family worked so hard day and night," he told Jim Denison, who interviewed him for Runner's World in 2005. "Yet we were still poor. Our conditions never seemed to change. For months at a time it was the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—corn, corn, corn…. I used to dream of how I could make my life better, or how I could become someone famous or important. I thought about becoming a pilot, or maybe an artist."
One of his family's few luxuries was a radio, and in the summer of 1980 the seven-year-old was entranced by broadcasts from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. That year an Ethiopian runner, Miruts Yifter, won the men's 10,000-meter race. As Gebrselassie witnessed Ethiopia's jubilation, he made winning an Olympic gold medal his goal. He did not formally enter the sport until he was in his teens but, like many in his family and region, usually ran to and from school, a trip of a little more than six miles each way. Because the Arsi area was so far above sea level, which meant its air had less oxygen, his heart and lungs had to work harder—but that also conditioned them to work at maximum-performance levels. There were other challenges on the daily trek, he recalled in an interview with Jim White for the Guardian. "In the rainy season, sometimes to get to the first lesson we had to run really quick, because we had to cross the river to school and we'd have to go up and down the bank to find a place to cross because there is no bridge."
Disobeyed His Father
When Gebrselassie competed for the first time in a formal event—at age fourteen in a race at his school—he won the 1,500-meter contest, even though he was the youngest in the group. His father discour- aged his further participation, however, asserting that spare time should be devoted either to studying or to helping with farm chores. At age fifteen he defied his father and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, to compete in a 10-kilometer race. When he arrived, he learned that the race had been canceled. But a marathon—a 26.2-mile race—was still set to start. Having gone that far—about one hundred fifty miles—he decided to run anyway. Although he did poorly, the race gave him his first taste of serious long-distance running. When he returned home, he recounted later, his father was angry at him for having traveled so far just to run in a race. For several months he abided by his father's order to quit running.
About a year later he moved to Addis Ababa to live with two of his brothers. The plan was that he would join the army, but his brother Assefa, who had earned a college degree and could support him, urged him to keep running instead. For the next year he trained daily at Jan Meda, a track used for national track-and-field events (it was originally built for the emperor's racehorses). In 1991, after winning a spot on the Ethiopian junior national team, he boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Antwerp, Belgium, where he competed in the World Cross Country Championships, the top event for amateur runners, which is sponsored by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Running in both the junior 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter events, he did not do very well. However, a year later, at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Seoul, South Korea, he took first place in both races. At the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, he moved up from the junior team to compete in the men's division. He won the 10,000-meter race and came in second in the 5,000-meter race.
The following year Gebrselassie set a new world record time of 12:56.96 in the 5,000-meter race. In 1995 he broke the world record in the 10,000 meters by a stunning nine seconds, finishing the annual Adriaan Paulen Memorial Race in Hengelo, The Netherlands, in 26:43.53. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics he won a gold medal in the men's 10,000-meter and returned to Ethiopia a national hero. The airport in Addis Ababa was also host to his engagement party for his upcoming wedding to Alem Te Lhun, who had worked at her family's snack kiosk near the Jan Meda track. Endurance, a docudrama about Gebrselassie's quest for Olympic gold, was released a few years later.
Broke His Own World Record
At the 1997 track-and-field championships in Zurich, Switzerland, Gebrselassie broke his own 5,000-meter record. The following year he set new indoor records in the 2,000-meter and 3,000-meter races. At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, he beat Kenya's Paul Tergat by 0.09 seconds to win his second Olympic gold medal in the men's 10,000-meter race. Tergat and another Kenyan, Daniel Komen, were Gebrselassie's top rivals at IAAF meets during this period of his career. He was also being challenged by a younger Ethiopian runner, Kenenisa Bekele, whom Gebrselassie had mentored. Both competed in the 10,000 at the 2004 Athens Olympics; Bekele won the gold medal while Gebrselassie, who had injured his Achilles tendon, came in fifth.
At a Glance …
Born on April 18, 1973, in Asela, Arsi, Ethiopia; son of Bekele Gebrselassie (a farmer) and Ayelech Degtu (a farmer); married Alem Te Lhun; children: Eden, Melat, Bete.
Career: Ethiopian national junior track-and-field team, 1991-92; Ethiopian national men's track-and-field team, 1993—; Ethiopian Olympic team, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.
Awards: Gold medal, 10,000-meter race, International Association of Athletics Federation World Championships, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999; gold medal, 10,000-meter race, 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 2000 Sydney Olympics; winner, 2005 Amsterdam, 2006 Berlin, 2006 Fukuoka (Japan), 2007 Berlin, and 2008 Dubai marathons.
Addresses: Office—c/o Ethiopian Athletics Federation, PO Box 3241, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Gebrselassie won his first marathon in Amsterdam in 2005. A year later he won both the Berlin and Fukuoka (Japan) marathons. He set a new world record for a marathon, 2:04:26, in Berlin in 2007. Four months later he won the 2008 Dubai Marathon with a time of 2:04:53. In 2008 he opted out of the marathon event at the Beijing Olympics, citing the city's polluted air, but did run in the 10,000-meter race, finishing sixth. "The marathon is more exciting than 10,000 meters," Gebrselassie told Denison in Runner's World. "The lead vehicle up front, the police motorbikes and their sirens, and the photographers, television cameras, and journalists. My favorite part, though, is the millions of people along the street shouting my name. Can you imagine hearing people cheer for you for over two hours? Oh, it's just fantastic."
In addition to prize money, Gebrselassie reportedly earned a fee of $1 million just for showing up at some of the world's top marathons. In Addis Ababa, where he lives with his wife and three daughters, he invested in real estate and construction ventures, employing his siblings and more than two hundred others. His construction company built schools in underserved rural areas. He also worked with several charitable initiatives, including HIV/AIDS prevention and efforts to improve sanitation. "The most important thing is to create jobs for these people," he told Paul Kimmage in the Sunday Times. "I am trying to contribute my share. All the money I have, I spend in this country…. This is where I was born. This is where I will die. I am proud of this country. I am proud of these people."
Guardian (London), April 8, 2002, p. 20.
New York Times, March 11, 2008, p. D1.
Runner's World, May 2005, p. 93.
Sports Illustrated, July 20, 1998, p. 34.
Sunday Times (London), June 2, 1996, p. 11; February 23, 2003, p. 18.
"Q & A with Haile Gebrselassie," CNN.com, November 9, 2007, http://edition.cnn.com/2007/TECH/09/26/revealed.HaileG.qanda/.