The Emperor of Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa – Haile Gebrselassie glowers at the training bicycle's glowing display, which shows his heart is beating at 144 bpm as his legs pump furiously and sweat cascades from his chin.
It is one of the rare moments the Ethiopian athlete, regarded as the greatest long-distance runner of all time, is not smiling. He is, after all, engaged in serious business.
Five weeks after “The Emperor” dropped out of the New York Marathon with a knee injury and announced his retirement, he is once again torturing himself in his gym in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, one eye on the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“It's better to stop here,” Gebrselassie, 37, told surprised reporters at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan on November 7, just one hour after competitors had overtaken him on Queensboro Bridge.
“It was a very spontaneous, very emotional decision. I was very disappointed with my performance,” he tells the German Press Agency dpa.
It only took twelve days for Gebrselassie to go back on the spur-of-the moment decision, prompted in large part by public pressure.
“When I came back to Ethiopia the reaction of the public was overwhelming,” he says. “They did not like the way I finished my career. And they were right. You can't stop the way I did. So I decided to keep on running.”
Like many Africans, Gebrselassie started by running 10km to school in the Arssi province where he was raised with nine siblings by his father. He never gave up his running posture from those times, as his left arm always remained a little crooked from holding the school books.
Gebrselassie emerged on the scene with a first of four straight 10,000 metres world titles 1993 in Stuttgart and won Olympic gold over the distance 1996 in Atlanta and 2000 in Sydney.
The diminutive runner was a world record holder over 5,000m and 10,000m and officially ended his track career with a 10,000m bronze at the 2003 worlds. However, he returned to come sixth at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing after not running the marathon due to pollution concerns.
Moving on full-time to the classic 42.195km marathon he first contested in 2002, Gebrselassie claimed the world record in Berlin in 2007 and bettered it there the following year to 2 hours 3 minutes 59 seconds.
Further world record attempts failed and Gebrselassie's last success was in his first Great North Run in Britain in September.
Gebrselassie estimates he has run more than 16,800 kilometers (4.2 times around the equator) in his life, and may yet make it a full five circuits.
“I still want to compete in the Olympic Games 2012 in London,” he says. “I will be 39 by that time. But I am an athlete. If I can defeat myself, I can defeat others as well.”
The modest athlete is also known as one of Ethiopia's most successful businessmen. He is the sole importer of Hyundai cars in Ethiopia, the owner of a gym, a cinema and a business building in Addis Ababa, as well as the Haile Resort, a five-star hotel in the south
“So far Ethiopia has been mainly known for famine, poverty, war. But it is time that we solve our problems by ourselves, and that is what I am doing by making money and creating jobs,” he says. “Of course I could also donate my money, but I am convinced that making business is the far more sustainable way of alleviating poverty.”
Gebrselassie's manager wants him to concentrate on sport completely, something the effusive runner can't countenance.
“He is right, but how shall I do it?” Gebrselassie laughs. “I invested most of my money, I can't leave the business alone now.”
Yet time is ticking, and beyond 2012 it is unclear if Gebrselassie will be able to continue to run competitively. Even when he retires, life will not be boring.
After disputed elections in 2005, 197 people were killed in Ethiopia in street fights. Gebrselassie successfully negotiated between government and opposition, and helped avoid further bloodshed.
Many Ethiopians want the runner to be their next President and this is an option he doesn't rule out.
“I can't add politics to sport and business right now. I dont have the time. But in five or ten years: Why not?” he says. – Sapa-dpa