In 2009, eight years after I’d finished working there, I returned to Ethiopia to research an MA dissertation. It came as no surprise to me then to discover that the Asmara Road, one of Addis Ababa’s main arteries, had been renamed the Haile Gebrselassie Road. This was in honour of the country’s greatest athlete, long-distance runner and twice-Olympic-champion Haile Gebrselassie.
When I lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001, Gebrselassie had already been accorded national-treasure status. I remember attending a conference at Addis Ababa University while the 2000 Olympics were taking place in Sydney. At one point a lecture hall I was in went ape-shit because it was announced that Gebrselassie had just won a gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Ethiopia. However, adored and acclaimed though Gebrselassie is, the diminutive (five-foot-five) athlete has never allowed things to go to his head. From all accounts he’s a humble, unassuming sort, mindful of his origins as the son of a subsistence farmer in Asala who first got into running by jogging eight kilometres every day to the nearest school. He also does much for Ethiopian charities, including education, health and clean-water ones, and has even donated his Olympic medals to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto. I hope you’re reading this, Usain Bolt… And making notes.
Last weekend, Haile Gebrselassie – who seems to have been around for so long now that I almost assumed he was getting near pension-age, although he’s actually only forty – made it to Scotland to take part in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow. Not only did he win the thirteen-mile half-marathon, but he ran it in an hour, one minute and nine seconds, making it the fastest half-marathon win ever seen in Scotland – clearly, Gebrselassie had kept away from the chips, Scotch eggs, white puddings, whisky and deep-fried Mars bars while he was sojourning in this dreich nation of ours. It was also good going for a man who’d announced his retirement in 2010 after withdrawing from the New York City Marathon with an injured knee.
Incidentally, my sister ran in this year’s Great Scottish Run in order to raise money for a Motor Neuron Disease charity. She completed it in two hours and fifty-six seconds and, I think, can be proud of herself for doing so in just under twice the time set by the mighty wee Haile.
Such was Gebrselassie’s popularity that, while I was in Ethiopia, local pop star Teddy Afro recorded a song about him. Here it is, a dozen years later, on youtube – the song isn’t very good, but at least it’s not very good in a nice way.