Haile Gebrselassie on the Kipchoge vs Bekele duel at the 2020 London Marathon

The Ethiopian distance icon also shared his admiration for Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge with Olympic Channel and explains why he would wish "to follow the footsteps of Kipchoge".
By Evelyn Watta

Ethiopian distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie is a man who is never afraid to express himself.

But when asked to predict the winner of the 2020 London Marathon on Sunday (4 October), he is "too shy to say".

The 47-year-old is more at ease appraising his own performance, consistently jogging “10km in 40 minutes” every other morning, than having to choose between two great athletes separated by a mere two seconds.

Reigning marathon Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge is seeking to extend his record tally of London titles to five.

Yet triple gold-medallist Kenenisa Bekele is in his "best shape ever" as he returns to the British capital seeking his first win at the fourth attempt.

Running a looped 2.15km course around St. James Park, Gebrselassie sees this year’s race as an elite time trial.

"The question is how fast they are going to run. World record or not, it’s going to be an attractive race, and I can’t wait to watch this race,” he told Olympic Channel from Addis Ababa.

"Kipchoge, no matter what, likes to go fast. Kenenisa was very close to the record, he was like two seconds from the world record which means he is in shape.

"I would like that they show us their shape, now they're back to competition, back to the road. I just want to see a fantastic race. If it’s a fast time, OK. If it’s a world record, it’s not bad."

"Kenenisa is in shape"

A double Olympic champion, Gebrselassie has never been the type to duck a challenge.

The attack he showed in a career spanning nearly two decades as he raced to world records, four consecutive world 10,000m titles and two Olympic titles in succession, is the way he likes to face issues.

But words fail him when it comes to the Kipchoge vs Bekele duel.

“I have to be very diplomatic. The best will be the best,” he said unleashing his trademark grin.

“I am not going to say this athlete is going to win, or this one is going to run this fast.

"I know the pain inside the race, they are going to have a lot of things going on inside [their head]." - Haile Gebrselassie

Gebrselassie saw both men at close quarters in the twilight of his track career.

His compatriot Bekele denied him a fifth consecutive 10,000m world title in a quite incredible encounter in Paris in 2003,

The younger man went on to break Gebrselassie's world records over 5000m and 10,000m with the former standing until Joshua Cheptegei eclipsed it at August's Monaco Diamond League.

Kenenisa Bekele (L) with Haile Gebrselassie after winning their epic clash in the 10,000m at the 2003 World Athletics Championships in Paris

Kipchoge won his only world senior title over 5000m in Paris, but the Kenyan has enjoyed unprecedented success since switching to the marathon in 2013.

As well as nine wins from 10 marathons, Kipchoge holds the world record of 2:01.39 and memorably ran the first sub two-hour marathon in Vienna last October.

Gebrselassie has great admiration for the duos' resilience and durability over the years.

"Kenenisa did very well during his track career. He was doing everything he set out to achieve. His marathon since he started was OK.

Remember the race from Berlin last year? He was very close to the record, like two seconds from the world record which means he is in shape, and has been training very well,”

“Kenenisa is going to show us a very good race in London.”

Gebrselassie: "I want to follow the footsteps of Kipchoge"

At 35, Kipchoge is three years younger than Bekele.

But his exploits in recent times have transcended athletes, something Gebrselassie appreciates greatly.

“Kipchoge is not just an athlete. When I think about Kipchoge, he is something different,” he shared.

“From his behaviour, his relationship with the people, how he is, the discipline. When I say this about Kipchoge the same of course [applies] for Kenenisa as well.

“But if you ask me to choose a person after Paul Tergat from Kenya, of course, it's Kipchoge. He’s my favourite athlete. Kipchoge is someone very different. When I see this athlete in terms of the discipline, the character, the how he trains, he competes, his results he is really a good role model for the rest of the athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia.”

"If I was younger, if God gave me just a junior Haile, I want to follow the footsteps of Kipchoge. Some people say they follow the footsteps of Haile Gebrselassie. I [would] follow the footsteps of Kipchoge."

The current London Marathon score is 4-0 in Kipchoge's favour with Bekele second behind Kenya’s Daniel Wanjiru in 2017.

Gebrselassie finished third in his marathon debut in London in 2002 but failed to make the podium on two subsequent appearances.

He said, "One time I finished third [2002], the other time I finished number something [ninth in 2006] and the next time [2007] I dropped out,” he recalled laughing.

“London was not perfect for Gebrselassie... Ask me about the Berlin Marathon - that was my favourite not only for Haile, but for Eliud and Kenenisa as well. I wish just to win there but it never happened and now it’s too late."

 Haile Gebrselassie finishes the 34th Berlin Marathon with a new WR in 2:04:26 hours on September 30, 2007 in Berlin, Germany.

Gebrselassie won four consecutive Berlin Marathons, two in world record times.

With a keen eye for history, the 47-year-old Ethiopian eventually chooses a winner.

"When you think of Eliud, you think of something special, a surprise. Even when he missed the two-hour attempt some years ago (at Monza) it was very close. Then when he ran Vienna it was fantastic. All that makes you want to watch Eliud.

"When you hear Eliud is going to run in a race somewhere you can imagine something special like (Usain) Bolt. But if I am to choose one, Eliud Kipchoge is my favourite."

Marathon - the ultimate sprint

For Gebrselassie, marathon is the ultimate sprint.

“How can you compare a marathon with 200m and 100m?" he posed. "There is a big, big, big gap. If you want to know go and run both 100m, 200m and the marathon and you will come back and tell me, ‘Haile you are right!’.”

The appeal of the marathon has seen a number of distance runners, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia, switch to the roads from the track.

The retired star sees this as a worrying trend with young athletes lured by the money on the roads and discouraged from pursuing careers on track due to lack of distance track meets.

He said, "It’s a mistake to go into the marathon when you are younger. The bones must be stronger before they run the marathon.

They can run three marathons successfully but after that they will be damaged. Let them wait until they are 23." - Haile Gebrselassie on young marathoners.

Gebrselassie is now a successful entrepreneur with his Haile & Alem International PLC business holding interests in areas as diverse as hotels, real estate, coffee plantations, fitness centres, cinemas and car assembly.

But given the choice, he would remain an athlete forever.

"When I was in athletics I was dealing with few people. Coach, manager, and the other athletes. But since I went full time into business, I have 3,500 people working for me in my company.

“Sometimes it's meeting after meeting. If you look at my mobile in a day, I can receive and dial about 120-130 calls.

"Sports was easier and that was the place where I enjoyed the most."