Haile Gebrselassie‘s father wanted him to become a farmer. Many of the world’s best distance-runners over the past fifteen years would agree. Few athletes in the world have dominated their discipline the way Gebrselassie has.
The 34-year-old Ethiopian was undefeated at 10,000 metres between 1993 and 2001. In that span, he won two Olympic titles, four world titles and set four world records at the distance. Altogether, he has set 23 world records at distances ranging from 1500 metres to 25 km.
Gebrselassie’s range is legendary: his 1500-metre best of 3:31 is an indoor world record, and his marathon best of 2:05:56 makes him the fifth-fastest at that distance. He has also held world records at 3000m, two miles, 5,000, 10 miles, 20 km, half marathon and 25 km. He still holds world records at two miles indoors, as well as 10 km and 10 miles on the road. His best-known times are his bests of 12:39 and 26:22 at 5,000 and 10,000 metres, where he is second only to fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele.
Geb, as he is known by fans, first made a name for himself when he became world champion at 10,000 metres in 1993 at Stuttgart. He repeated the feat at Gˆteborg two years later, the same year where he shattered world records at both of his specialty distances, running 12:44 and 26:43. The previous marks had been 12:55 and 26:52.
The following year, Gebrselassie won his first Olympic gold medal at Atlanta in 1996, outsprinting longtime rival Paul Tergat in the first of four such instances. Despite world records and titles and an Olympic gold medal to his name, Gebrselassie was just entering his prime.
Over less than two weeks in June 1998, he broke two world records, first running 26:22 at Hengelo with perfectly splits of 13:11 and 13:11. Still more dramatic was his world record over 5,000 metres twelve days later. Gebrselassie reached 3,000 metres at 8:40 and needed to run the final four laps in less than four minutes in order to break Daniel Komen’s world record of 12:39.74. visibly hurting, rare for the graceful Gebrselassie, he ran a 4-minute mile to finish the race and narrowly broke Komen’s world record.
The 10,000 metres at the Sydney Olympics may well have been the greatest moment of a career full of such moments. Gebrselassie and perennial rival Paul Tergat dueled over twenty-five laps. Just when it seemed as though Tergat would finally prevail, Gebrselassie willed himself past Tergat in the final 100 metres to win by 0.09 seconds.
By now, Gebrselassie has switched his focus to the marathon, with the aim of breaking Tergat’s world record of 2:04:55. He was in fact ahead of Tergat’s pace as late as 35 km into the 2006 Berlin Marathon, but faded in the heat to finish a minute behind the world record in 2:05:56. Most recently, Gebrselassie had a disappointing race at the London Marathon, where he dropped out.
Nevertheless, it would be premature to discount the Emperor at the marathon. The past fifteen years have shown that Gebrselassie can dominate international competition like no one before or since.