Friday, August 10, 2007

Haile Successful

Gebrselassie reminds us once again of his greatness
By Brian Cazeneuve for SI.com

See his distinctive stride and you could read a chapter of Haile Gebrselassie's life, the telltale peek at the world's greatest living distance runner, blowing through Central Park, then Times Square and the streets of Gotham as the Ethiopian legend ran away with the New York Half Marathon on Sunday morning.

The man is light of feet, a skimming stone along the water. Does he even need to touch the ground or might he just float? His chin is straight, only moving laterally if he must espy his opposition. Otherwise, there is no excess energy. How does the bobbing and bouncing not shake his core? How can a spinal column stay so straight when limbs are moving so purposefully?

And then it strikes you. Even at 34, his left arm still has a perceptive, if subtle, flap. The form flaw is out of place. Compact at 5-feet-4, 117 pounds, he looks like the Greek statue with the missing ear. What, pray tell, is wrong? "My books," he tells you. "I needed them for school, so I carried them in my left arm."

The distance was convenient then: 10 kilometers from the farmhouse in Arssi where a single father raised 10 Gebrselassie children to the school where a 16-year old ran his first race, 1,500 meters against older, more accomplished boys. "People were laughing because I was sprinting at the beginning," Gebrselassie remembers. "Look at this boy. He's going to stop soon."

He still hasn't. For his victory that day, Gebrselassie won shorts and a singlet. Retail value: $1, by his estimation. He won certificates for his next two victories. Medals trophies and six-figure appearance fees were still off in the distance.

He has run as long and fast as anyone, setting 22 world records, winning eight world and Olympic medals, including six golds. In the debate among running aficionados to name history's greatest distance runner, Gebrselassie's name stands next to Paavo Nurmi, the Norwegian legend from the 1920s, and Emil Zatopek, the great Czech from the '50s. Neither has Gebrselassie's blistering kick. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he outlasted Kenya's Paul Tergat in the 10,000 meters, running the last 200 meters in 26 seconds. Who else on the planet could run 1,500 meters in 3:31.76 in 1998 and win the Berlin Marathon last year in 2:05.56? Despite his sublime resume, Gebrselassie had rarely run in the United States and never in New York City until Sunday.

"When I run in Ethiopia, I look out and see eucalyptus trees and rivers," he said this week, "I wanted to experience New York, to look up and see buildings."

His race began in Central Park for an initial 10 kilometer (six-mile) loop during which Gebrselassie ran stride-for-stride with Somali-born U.S. runner Abdi Abdirahman and Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, the three-time Boston Marathon champ.

The fast pace played into the hands of Gebrselassie, the two-time Olympic champ at 10,000 meters who once held world records at both the 5K and 10K distances. "I don't know why they pushed," Gebrselassie said afterwards. "I thought they'd stay back. I am a 10,000-meter runner. But they pushed, so I said, 'OK, thank you, you are running my pace. Good-bye.'"

As the runners left the park and headed onto the streets of midtown Manhattan, Abdirahman made a bold push to build a lead. The move dropped Cheruiyot, but not Gebrselassie, who then shot into the lead and never lost it. "In running, you try to recover your surge," Abdirahman explained. "I was trying to build back up and Haile didn't give me that chance. He went right past me and the race was over."

Gebrselassie finished easily in 59 minutes, 24 seconds, a minute ahead of Abdirahman. This was a tune-up, one of many, for his transition to the marathon at the Beijing Olympics next summer, and perhaps for the New York Marathon in 2009. "The race is a natural challenge for me," says Haile, whose older brother, Tekaye, was a 2:11 marathoner in Ethiopia. "You lose the speed before the stamina. I always thought I would move to the marathon late in my career. . . When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners and not against the time."

Gebrselassie has now won all eight half marathons he has entered to go with his marathon wins in Berlin, Fukuoka and Amsterdam. He has won 108 races in 56 different cities, but remains committed to helping his countrymen, many of whom remain impoverished.

His businesses in Ethiopia employ 400 people and include two hotels, a fitness center, a cinema and a car dealership. More than 1,200 students attend the two schools he opened. They are private schools, with a tuition of $7 a month. Students in the fourth grade there are on par with most 12th graders in the country. They have computers and science labs with proper equipment. More than 80 percent will receive higher education, compared with a national average of 10 to 15 percent. As passionately as he speaks about running, he is even more animated about he desire to make Ethiopia better.

"These last few years, we had many problems, from war to poverty, HIV. One year there is drought, next year flooding," he says. "I have to do something for my country. I have to do my part.

"People sometimes get angry with me, because I won't give money away. I tell them, if you want to work, I will find you work. I will give you a job with a good wage and I will take care of you. But a man cannot improve himself with free gifts, only with opportunity. When you find a child who wants to learn but cannot find a good school, or a man who wants to work and to better himself but he cannot find a job to help his family, that is where I must help. Work builds confidence."

In a land that has not always embraced strong women, Gebrselassie relies heavily on his wife, Alem, to run many of his businesses while tending to their four children. "Many times I think we should do something one way and she will suggest another way," he says. "I think, oh, OK, you are the smart one. We will do it your way. This is the modern man."

Hear Gebrselassie speak and you picture another life chapter in which a boy carried his books and learned well.

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