Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie announced his retirement from competitive running last weekend. His 2010 retirement proved short-lived, but now that he’s already 42 the decision is set to last. Just to summarise his achievements, he won two Olympic gold medals and four world championships over 10.000 metres track event between 1993 and 2000, won number of high profile marathons and set a World Record on various distances 27 times.
Gebrselassie had a well-known rivalry with Paul Tergat (Kenya), who usually had to settle to silver position behind Gebrselassie. The two would, however, be good friends off the track. Gebrselassie made his marathon debut at the 2002 London Marathon, finishing third in the race won by Khalid Khannouchi by a world record time, while Tergat was second. In 2004 Gebrselassie attempted to win his third Olympic gold, but was left to 5th place in the 10.000 metres race well behind the next Ethiopian world-beater, Kenenisa Bekele.
Gebrselassie won almost every marathon he took between 2005 and 2010. He broke the world record then held by Tergat in 2007 in Berlin. He would had been a stern favourite at the 2008 Olympic Marathon, but suffering from asthma, he was concerned of air quality in Beijing, and opted out. This allowed him to run at Berlin Marathon where he would improve his World Record time and become the first man to run faster than 2:04 hours (new record was 2:03:59).
The last five years of his career were rocked by injuries and other setbacks. A failure at the 2010 New York City Marathon prompted him to announce retirement, a decision he would quickly rescind. He did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London. Now turned 40 did not take marathons since 2013 but would still do well in occasional shorter races. Sports aside, surely we’ll be hearing of Gebrselassie years to come. He became an UN goodwill ambassador in 1999 and has been active in charitable work ever since. He has also invested in business in Ethiopia, like a cinema and a coffee plantation. He has also expressed interest in joining politics, even running for presidency.
Gebrselassie’s retirement is also a symbolic end of an era in Ethiopian running. Their success has relied on relatively few big names (Gebrselassie, Bekele, Derartu Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, Meseret Defar), all running distances over 5000 metres. Fierce rivals Kenya, on the other hand, has a broader range of world-class middle to long-distance runners, but often seeing yesterdays winners just fade away. Now that golden generations of Ethiopian running (born early 70’s to mid 80’s) are retiring or leaving track in favour of marathons, there is a big gap to be filled. New Ethiopian talent is emerging indeed, but can they match the illustrious careers of their predecessors? Indications are, however, they may go “Kenyan way” and have a larger pool of athletes any of whom who can win on a good day.