Haile the conquering hero

12 May 2015

Widely regarded as one of the greatest long-distance runners in history, double Olympic 10,000m champion Haile Gebrselassie raced for the last time in May 2015. Here we look back at the career of one of the sporting world’s true legends.

On 10 May 2015, in Manchester (GBR), legendary long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie ran his last race. The Ethiopian, who won Olympic 10,000m gold in 1996 and 2000, to go with four consecutive world championship titles, and who set a total of 27 world records, has called time on his competitive career at the age of 42.

Competing over the 10km distance that made him famous, Gebrselassie finished 16th in the Great Manchester Run. The result, though, was of little consequence. This was the end of an era. Though, as he explained at the finish line, the Ethiopian has no intention of putting his feet up: “I'm retiring from competitive running, not from running. You cannot stop running, this is my life. “I'm very happy to stop here [Gebrselassie enjoyed five victories in the city between 2005 and 2012], I knew this was going to be the last one.”

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School run

The legend of Gebrselassie began in in the region of Arsi on the high plains of Ethiopia, which has produced so many great international runners over the years. As a child, he was preparing for his future before he even realised it, as he ran the 10km from his village to school, and back again, every day.

His passion for competitive athletics began when he witnessed his compatriot Miruts Yifter win the 5,000m and 10,000m titles at Moscow 1980. That was just the latest triumph in Ethiopia’s love affair with long-distance, which dates back to the victories of Abebe Bikila in the marathon at Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964.

In 1992, Gebrselassie began the latest chapter in that love affair when he was crowned world junior 5,000m and 10,000m champion in Seoul (KOR). The following year, he won his first world title at senior level in Stuttgart (GER), thanks to a supersonic last lap in the 10,000m, before adding a silver in the 5,000m.

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World beater

Equally comfortable on the track and in cross-country, Gebrselassie claimed his first world record on 6 June 1994, clocking 12:56.89 in the 5,000m in Hengelo (NED). The following year at the same venue he shaved nine seconds off the 10,000m world record as he crossed the line in 26:43.53. On 8 August 1995, he clinched his second world 10,000m title in Gothenburg (SWE). He then rounded off a glorious year by taking almost 11 seconds off the 5,000m world record, clocking 12:44.39 during the IAAF meet in Zurich (SUI).

Olympic glory

On the 26 July 1996, on the track at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, the 23-year-old Gebrselassie was hot favourite going into the 10,000m final. He lived up to his billing, responding brilliantly to a breakaway by Kenya’s Paul Tergat at the 8,000m mark, overtaking him on the last lap before crossing the line with six metres to spare. He greeted the victory with the grin that had become his trademark and which helped endear him to sports fans around the world.

An almost carbon copy of those scenes unfolded on 22 September 2000 in Sydney, where once again the 10,000m final developed into a duel between Tergat and Gebrselassie. Yet again it was the Ethiopian who emerged victorious, though this time it was much closer. Following a phenomenal burst of speed in the final straight, Gebrselassie crossed the line just nine hundredths of a second ahead of his rival.

In the intervening years, in Athens in 1997 and in Seville in 1999, Gebrselassie racked up his third and fourth world titles over 10,000m.

The Ethiopian was now well on the way to becoming one of the all-time greats of long distance running. In 2003, in Brussels (BEL) he lowered his own 10,000m world record to 26:29:22. The following year he was back on the Olympic stage in Athens, but surprisingly only managed to finish fifth. At that point he decided to focus on the marathon and went on to notch a number of eye-catching victories in Berlin (GER), Fukuoka (JPN) and Dubai (UAE).

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Marathon man

In two consecutive editions of the Berlin Marathon, in 2007 and 2008, Gebrselassie broke the world record, lowering the mark to 2h04.26 and then 2h03.59. Competing at his fourth Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, he finished sixth in the 10,000m, as his young compatriot Kenenisa Bekele took gold. There was to be no fifth appearance at the Games, as his efforts to qualify for the marathon at London 2012 were unsuccessful.

Throughout his prolific career, Gebrselassie’s pure love of running was a constant theme, as was his trademark smile. “It’s in my nature. I can’t change that. It’s not just when I win; I laugh when I lose as well.” It is that beautiful attitude, as well as his feats on the track, that will ensure the Ethiopian’s place in sporting history.


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