IF YOU’RE looking for a quitter, someone who shrinks in adversity, who lacks the resolve to adhere to a task until the bitter end, then one of the greatest distance runners of all time is resoundingly not your man.
A fanfare-festooned career bejewelled by two Olympic gold medals, four world championship golds and 27 world records might suffice for an athlete of 38, but not the indefatigable Haile Gebrselassie.
He came close to hanging up his well-worn trainers less than a year ago following a disappointing New York marathon, and lesser men might have revisited the idea after failing to finish Sunday’s Berlin marathon.
But sitting opposite the slight, softly spoken Ethiopian with the mighty lungs and even bigger heart in his London hotel room, it is clear he has a few more miles left to run. Thousands, in fact.
Returning to the capital next year is his chief remaining goal, to collect the one prize conspicuous by its absence from a CV testament to his dominance of first track and then road. “The Olympic marathon – that’s it,” he declares.
London marathons have not elicited the best from Gebrselassie, who won four consecutive Berlin marathons and three in Dubai, but has never finished higher than third in a trio of attempts here.
He blames the anomaly on his asthma, which is exacerbated by the high pollen counts of early summer, and is confident that August will be kinder to his respiratory system than late April. “The Olympics are in the summer, it’s warm and hot. I hope that will help,” he says.
Geb, as he is affectionately known, was surprised to suffer breathing problems in Berlin, despite a favourable climate, which forced him to withdraw less than five miles short of the line. To compound the disappointment, Kenya’s Patrick Makau went on to win in two hours, three minutes, 38 seconds, breaking Gebrselassie’s three-year-old world record – yet he did enough to reaffirm his belief he can re-write them all over again.
“My training, everything, was perfect, but maybe not good enough. Now I am thinking about the next one. I want to learn something from the failure – not just to worry about it. Running is not an easy job. Nowadays I am still doing good. In Berlin, my pace until almost 30km was too good. I ran at world record pace. It was 2:03:20 or sometimes 2:03:10 pace, which means I have enough.”
Having not yet even qualified for London 2012, could he really regain the record there as a 39-year-old? “Sure! Last Sunday, I was really very, very good until I stopped. One thing I understood from that competition, is that maybe I was too ambitious to break the record. Now I’ll just focus on winning the race.”
His utter determination did waver, for once, in New York in November, after a knee injury forced him out of the race. To global shock, he announced his immediate retirement, but just days later, following outcry from his homeland, he withdrew it. “That day I was maybe a bit too emotional. After I dropped out I went into the press conference and it was very difficult to answer that kind of question. [I thought:] ‘Ok, if things are going like this, let me stop competing and do something else.’”
What happened on return to his beloved Ethiopia changed his mind. “They were very upset. Everybody was saying: ‘OK, you can retire, but not this way.’”
It had precedent. Back in 2004, at the Athens Games, he did not feel fit to defend his 10,000m title, owing to an Achilles problem, but bowed to national pressure and competed. He came fifth, on his farewell track appearance. Does he feel a burden of expectation from his compatriots? “A little bit of pressure, too much pressure. If people expect something, you have to do something,” he admits.
Retirement is firmly off the agenda now, however, even after the Berlin setback. He could hardly be more emphatic: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no – come on. This is serious. In sport you always have to plan, to tell yourself ‘I have to do this and this’. Nowadays I am just thinking of the next race.”
Perhaps after London 2012 he will reconsider, but the father of four believes he will know when to quit the circuit. “It will come by itself. If I don’t win a race or am not good enough in competition, it might be better not to compete – but not to stop running. Running is not the one you stop.”
Aside from running 35km a day and overseeing business interests in property, motoring and coffee production that employ some 600 people, he also finds time to channel energy into helping others achieve Olympic dreams.
Gebrselassie, through his sponsors G4S, the security company, is an ambassador and mentor to 14 young athletes from around the world. They come from a wide range of disciplines – from table tennis to sailing to BMX – but he believes sporting lessons are universal, having idolised Muhammad Ali as a youngster. “He’s a boxer – why do I need to know about him? It’s a question of winning.”
Some of the aspiring talents have visited his home in Addis Ababa, where they taste a gruelling regime that involves running at 3,000m altitude. “When they come, my biggest welcome drink is training!” he laughs.
His wiry 5ft 5in, 8st 8lb frame can barely contain his affection for Ethiopa, which he is considering channelling into a political career. Gebrselassie says he wants his country to be as prosperous as those in which he competes. “Right now I’m trying to invest all my money from athletics – is that enough? Or to share experience? I travel around the world. If politics is the way, why not?”
If he chose to stand for office, he would surely be swept in by a landslide. A national hero, his opponents would stand no chance. As countless competitors across three decades have found, he is the most formidable of men to run against.
Haile Gebrselassie is a mentor to the G4S 4teen programme, which is helping fourteen young athletes achieve their goal of competing at London 2012. For more information please visit www.g4ssport.com