From growing up in a Tukul, a one-room home, in a peasant family in Asella to employing over 100 people now, from running to school to setting 27 world records, Haile Gebrselassie’s journey is an inspirational tale in itself. The legendary Ethiopian figures in a vast majority of conversations about running. For he won 10,000m gold medals at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000 and four successive 10,000m world championship crowns. He also won 11 major marathons and set 27 world records on the track and on road.
Born in a family of 10 children, Haile had to travel 20km every day to attend school. Along with his humble upbringing, he was also asthmatic in his younger days. Yet, he could run fast, leaving his friends behind. His running posture included a crooked left-hand position signifying the way he held books when running to school. Soon made it to the national team. He was faster than many of his team-mates who had undergone formal training.
Setting the pace
Inspired by Abebe Bikila, Haile began by winning medals in the junior circuit, winning both the 5000m and 10,000m titles at the Junior World Championships as well as the World Cross Country Championships in 1992. His pace proved too hot to handle for others as he won the 10,000m gold at the World Championships the very next year. It was the first of four consecutive victories in the Worlds and he ended up breaking the 5000m world record time in 1994, the first of many to come.
The medal haul
Gebrselassie once had a streak of 54 wins and won back-to-back Olympic golds in 10,000m in 1996 and 2000. He also has four indoor titles along with World Half-Marathon Championship in his kitty. He also was a successful marathoner, winning the Berlin Marathon four times and Dubai Marathon three times. He tasted victories at the Fukuoka and Amsterdam marathons as well. Haile eventually ended up setting a whopping 27 world records and announced his retirement in 2010. He reversed this decision and returned to competitive running but could never reach the heights of before. He eventually retired in November 2015. "I'm retiring from competitive running, not from running. You cannot stop running, this is my life. I have had 23 incredible years in athletics on the elite level! Looking forward to stay involved as a running ambassador and promote running around the world,” he said.
In his final race, one in which he fired the starter’s gun as well, Haile took off his shoes with less than a kilometre left for the finish and gave them off to a runner. As a tribute to his own hero, Abebe Bikila, he ran the remaining part barefoot. The respect he earned with his achievements and humility is such that the man who got Haile’s shoes returned the pair to the legend!
Life after retirement
Haile is a successful businessman in Addis Ababa. He employs more than a hundred people in his various businesses – real estate and coffee plantations. He runs two schools as well because he believes in education. He finds the time to run – “running is addictive,” he says – and trains regularly in the gym. He is also part of the Great Ethiopian Run and a United Nations Ambassador, a little man with a large heart.