Thanks all, I love it here on Charlie and Ange’s site and will continue to share whatever I have… for starters, along the way, I did go to Addis Ababa and I will post a story I wrote on meeting Haile, but it was written before the Sydney Olympics, so please take that into account… I hope you like the story which attempts to place Haile in context of the Ethiopian experience:
It is dawn on the parched Entoto plateau overlooking Addis Ababa. Curious donkeys lift their heads out of brittle yellowed speargrass as the equally gaunt and hardened figure of a man runs past.
His light and cautious gait leaves no foot prints on pale brown earth hardened by recalcitrant Ethiopian drought and corrugated by a million treacherous striations: the naked ribs of a tortured land.
Even the air is undernourished here, lacking oxygen 3km above sea level.
Breathing is difficult enough just walking much less haring across the country for an hour, although the familiar aroma of eucalyptus invigorates the athlete.
“It is the scent of the Bahit Zaf - ‘tree which comes on the sea’ - and it came from Australia,” explained Haile Gebrselassie, the thin man who by 7.30am has completed the first of his two training sessions this day.
Gebrselassie, 27, a sparrow-hawk of a man at 164cm (5ft 3in) and 53kg is arguably Africa’s greatest athlete - ever.
He has set 15 world records and is current owner of the records for 5000m and 10,000m. He is the favourite for both events at the Sydney Olympics in September.
He has won the last four world titles for 10,000mand is the defending Olympic champion at the distance. He has not lost a race in the 25-lap event since 1993 and has taken half a minute off the world record set by his predecessor, all of which proposes him as the world’s greatest ever at 10,000m.
If things go to plan in Sydney, he may then be recognised as history’s greatest track long distance runner although he would need to win the 5000m in September.
To that end he continues training on top of Entoto where the rarified air enhances a runner’s endurance capacity as the blood adapts by producing more oxygen-carrying haemoglobin.
And every day he is reminded of his Australian destination by the Bahit Zaf, gum trees imported as seed by a merchant advisor to Emperor Menelik II who established Ethiopia’s modern independence by routing the Italian army in 1896 - the year of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens.
"The King gave seedlings to his people and he said, ‘Treat them as you would your own children,’ " explained Gebrselassie sternly.
“You know, it is a wonderful gift from your country because when you cut it down it grows back very quickly with twice as many branches. The people use the wood for building, for lighting cooking fires. It is very important to them.”
It was on Entoto that Menelik II established his irst “palace”, little more than a cottage the humble remains of which are today occupied by peasant families who worship a few metres away at St Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church.
The head of the church emerges from the octagonal building painted brown, green and yellow, to bestow blessings on Gebrselassie for his forthcoming Olympic campaign.
The modern Emperor of athletics hurriedly makes himself more presentable, grabbing an adidas tracksuit from his Mercedes C180, an incongruity among the poverty in the world’s second poorest nation after Mozambique.
Most of his countrymen scrape by on about $12 a month. The “departure tax” from Addis Ababa airport is US$20.
According to World Bank statistics per capita income in Ethiopia averages less than $120 a year and Gebrselassie’s humble origins on the land suggest if not for athletics he had little prospect of elevating himself financially.
Yet Gebrselassie already owned two Mercs - prizes offered by the International Amateur Athletic Federation to gold medallists at the 1993 and 1995 world championships - before he even knew how to drive.
These days he is adept behind the wheel as he navigates around the countless pot-holes in the Entoto Road and a flood of humanity, mostly women and children, and their tiny donkeys all laden with bundles of eucalyptus branches.
All roads in Addis Ababa are in poor repair, including Entoto which is one of the few bituminous roads.
The US Embassy is situated at its base, almost opposite a university catering for 12,000 students. Nearby is the superb but under-resourced national museum which exhibits the fossilised remains of 3.5 million years old “Lucy,” once the world’s oldest hominid. Another 4.4m years old has recently been discovered, also in Ethiopia.
It is an ancient land struggling to sustain anancient people, perhaps the source of humankind.
And Ethiopia’s 3000 years old Solomonic dynasty claims descent from King Menelik I, believed to have been the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
They made their home in the northern city of Aksum. It is there where religious leaders are said to be guarding the Arc of the Covenant. And it is from Aksum that a variation of Coptic Christianity spread across Ethiopia and was adopted by 40 per cent of her 59m people, including the devout Haile Gebrselassie.
As photographer Anthony Weate and I are treated to a banquet lunch in his modest home, the display cabinets along two walls of his dining room are crammed with all manner of medals and awards.
But conspicuous by it’s absence is his most precious memento: his solitary Olympic gold medal earned on bloodied feet for winning the 10,000m in Olympic record time four years ago in Atlanta.
“I gave it to my church,” Gebrselassie admits after some impolite prodding from his guests.
"I made a promise to God that if I win a gold medal in Atlanta I will give it to the church.
“The next one I will keep because maybe the onefrom Sydney will be a very special one. How does it look?”
It is another SOCOG secret, we advise. “Good. I’m happy it’s a big secret,” Gebrselassie says and his warm brown eyes are forced shut by the broadest smile in the premier Olympic sport.
Gebrselassie’s face is the best known in his country where he is revered - in the words of a former sports minister “as a small God in Ethiopian society” - especially by those who have watched him endure his pain for over a decade on the steep and winding 5km road up to Entoto.
“My hardest training session is the one when I train in the mountain, when I run up the Entoto Road. Sometimes we repeat three times, mostly just two times,” he said as the housemaid to his beautiful wife, Alem, and nanny to their first child, daughter Aden, roasts and then grinds and brews an excellent Ethiopian coffee for us.
"We jog down and race back up. The best uphill is between 17 and 18 minutes. Once I did 16min and 30sec. It’s high altitude, a very bad road and very steep.
“The jog back down takes longer than going up, sometimes 20mins because it’s hard on the legs going down. But the uphill runs must be the same time, both must be 17mins.”
This training was the basis of his becoming, in 1995, the first man since Kenya’s Henry Rono in the late 1970s to hold both the 5000m and 10,000m world records concurrently and in 1998 he joined the Czech legend Emil Zatopek and Australia’s own Ron Clarke as the only man to break the 10,000m world record three times.
Gebrselassie runs on average 25km each day in a consuming year-round training program which includes one session each week running to the church on top of Entoto.
It was at the behest of Menelik II’s wife that the Emperor came down from Entoto to construct his new capital, calling it Addis Ababa - “New Flower.”
Upon his death, his daughter Zauditu ascended to the throne in 1917 and ruled with the help of Ras Tafari (“Rastafari”), the son of Menelik’s cousin.
When Zauditu died in 1930 Tafari became Emperor, adopting the name Haile Selassie. In 1972 and 1973 severe drought led to famine in the northeast and in 1974 the Emperor was deposed in a military coup.
The new government, under Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam, instituted Marxist policies, reclaimed huge farming estates from the nobility and routinely assassinated opponents of his regime over the next 17years.
In the mid 1980s another severe drought devastated parts of Ethiopia and thousands more died as a consequence of the dictator’s actions. In1991, during yet another famine, a rebel People’s Army defeated Mengistu who fled in 1992 and has since lived in Zimbabwe under president Robert Mugabe’s protection.
Mengistu is currently being tried in absentia oncharges of “genocide and crimes against humanity” for forcing 750,000 Ethiopians into exile, killing 200,000, leaving 45,000 children orphaned and 60,000 crippled by starvation.
“Have you heard of the Blood Terror?” Gebrselassie enquires. “That was a very bad moment.”
It is against this background of cyclical famine, grinding poverty, disastrous social engineering and murderous insurrections that the young Gebrselassie somehow emerged in 1992 to win the 5000m and 10,000m at the World Junior Athletics Championships in Seoul.
Four years earlier, Ethiopia and Cuba were the only nations to boycott the Seoul Olympics in support of communist North Korea’s idiotic insistence they be awarded half of the Games.
Despite Ethiopia’s stayaway, the 1988 Games proved inspirational to Gebrselassie who recalls watching the Opening and Closing Ceremonies on television at a bar in the town of Arsella, some 10km from his village of Dara in the region of Arssi, a fertile farming are a 3000m above sea level.
He listened to some of the races on a battery radio: “Electric radio is impossible in my village. In Arsella there is everything, but in Dara there is still no electricity, no water. If you want water in Dara you must go to the river.”
Gebrselassie started formal training in 1989 under the direction of his older brother Tekeye, one of 10 children in the family. Haile was the seventh-born in the mud hut built by his farmer father, Gebrselassie Bikila.
But Haile had made up his mind years earlier to become a runner after listening to radio reports from the 1980 Moscow Olympics where Ethiopia’s Miruts Yifter - “Yifter The Shifter” - dominated the 5000m and 10,000m races with his devastating sprint finish.
"Moscow was my special moment. It was a special time to love athletics because of Yifter. But I had no chance to start running until 1989.It was then that Tekeye started training and racing.
"I had so much enthusiasm in my body and when he said let’s run together I said, ‘Oh great!’
“We went training once and I was a bit tired -everywhere. I cannot tell you how I looked at that moment. After a few days everything was fine again and I started running again.”
Tekeye himself is today a respected international marathon runner with a best time of 2hrs 11min 45sec. He emigrated to Holland where he has citizenship, but he frequently returns to Ethiopia where he trains with Haile.
“I first heard him say he wanted to be an Olympic champion in 1980. I laughed,” Tekeye said as he towelled down after a gruelling circuit session in the weight-training gym at the Addis Ababa Hilton.
"He told me he will show me: ‘I will be the winner of the world, top the world record,’ he told me.
“When he was young he was quite interesting. He was very active. He liked everything: music, sport. He liked running. What makes him special is his heart and his mind. His heart is very strong, his mind is very active.”
Like so many children in Africa, Haile travelled long distances daily by foot to and from school unknowingly building the endurance base 3000m above sea level which would enable him to become a great athlete.
“I had to run the 10km from my village at Dara to school every day in Arsella because it was impossible to drive a car. You have to cross five rivers, but not such big ones,” Gebrselassie advised.
"So every day, Monday to Friday, I had to run because, you know, when you wake up at 6 o’clock you have to wash, you have to prepare and maybe you have one hour of time to go.
“Things are very difficult when you have to be there in one hour, especially because the path is not like a road. It’s a bit of a hill going toschool and there were the rivers. That I did for 10 years.”
The same year (1989) he started formal running training Gebrselassie actually ran a marathon in 2hrs 48min in Addis Ababa, at the age of 15! It was also the first time he saw electricity!
"I just had my first race. It was over 1500m and I won. Immediately after that I came to Addis Ababa because Tekeye wanted to compete in the marathon.
"When I arrived there was no competition for me, only the marathon. I didn’t want to go back home to Dara (180km south-east of Addis Ababa) without a competition. My brother was very strong, very experienced. I was not so good.
"I started with them and I finished very badly.The winner finished in 2hrs 17min and my brother was second in 2:18. But between me and the first was a big difference, 30mins and I placed 99th. You can say 100.
“I was very tired, like exhausted. It was really a very bad moment. As soon as I reached the finish line I could not walk anymore and all my body became terrible, you know? I have no words for it.”
So, like the patriarchs of Ethiopian sport - Olympic gold medallists Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde - Gebrselassie came to note in the marathon and he intends to run down that road again some day.
It was in fact Emperor Haile Selassie who was indirectly responsible for Ethiopia’s Olympic distance running tradition when in the late1950s he embraced an offer from the Swedish Army to train his Imperial Guard.
The Swedes had long been proponents of a style of running training called “fartlek” (speed-play) and when this was introduced as routine conditioning in combination with the 2,500m high altitude in Addis Ababa, a Swedish Army Major, Oni Niskanen, pioneered the successful European coaching insurgence into Africa.
In 1960 the previously unknown Abebe Bikila, a member of the Imperial Guard, competed in the Rome Olympics and won the marathon, the first black African Olympic champion.
Had it been known he clocked 2hrs 21min 23sec the previous month in Addis Ababa, Bikila might not have been so completely overlooked in pre-race predictions.
At night on a road lit by Italian soldiers carrying flaming torches, barefoot Bikila devised his final assault to start 1km from the finish - ironically at an obelisk looted from Aksum, birthplace of the Solomonic dynasty.
Four years later Bikila did it again, this time wearing shoes to win the marathon at the Tokyo Games in a world record 2hrs 12mins 12sec despite having an appendectomy just six weeks earlier.
He went to Mexico City for his third Olympics in1968, dropping out injured after 17km. But Olympic 10,000m silver medallist Mamo Wolde backed up to retain the marathon for Ethiopia.
It was an amazing progression for Wolde who competed at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics racing in Ethiopia’s 4x400m relay and placingl ast in his heat of the 800m and 1500m.
But, like Bikila, Wolde’s journey would plunge into darkness. Bikila became a paraplegic in 1969 after crashing the volkswagon given to him by Haile Selassie for his second Olympic victory.
He died in 1973, just months before the 3000 year Solomonic dynasty was terminated by the Mengistu Haile-Mariam coup, the octagenarian Emperor escaping from his palace - in a VW beetle.
Wolde was swept up in the Blood Terror. A member of the Armed Forces he has languished in prison in Addis Ababa since 1993, accused of killing a man but reportedly still awaiting trial.
"His case is not so good because they say he killed someone during the Blood Terror,’’ Gebrselassie said. ``The man was injured by somebody else and when Mamo Wolde passed that guy, the man asked him, ‘Mamo Wolde: finish me!’
"And Mamo Wolde, it is said he was a little bit drunk and he didn’t think about his action, how it looks, and they said he killed him. They said it was that way. It is really complicated.
“The other man was not a soldier, but he was nearly dead. He was in very bad shape.”
So Bikila is dead, Wolde in prison, Yifter fled four years ago to Canada and Ethiopia’s only other male Olympic medallist, Moscow 10,000m third-placer Mohammed Kedir has fled to the Netherlands.
Even Gebrselassie’s own brother, Tekeye, has moved out but the fifth pillar of Ethiopian men’s athletics stays put even though he has been granted permanent residence in the Netherlands.
Now again, in the first year of a new millennium yet another famine of Biblical proportions is threatening Ethiopia and perhaps therein lies the answer as to why Haile refuses to run away.
“Yeah, for me it’s very difficult to stay outside the country. Ethiopia is very special for me. I like to stay here. I like to share all the problems the people have. I don’t want to leave my country,” he softly declares.
"Here in Ethiopia our mentality is different to that in other countries. Here it is impossible to live without your people, without your family, without your friends.
"When you have something, you have to help other people. I can live in Holland, in America or anywhere in the world but a very important question is how life looks without friends, without your people.
“Most of our people are poor and you have to help the ones who don’t have a father or mother. I look at other people around me: who needs money, who needs shelter?”
According to a 1996 report by Pat Butcher who interviewed his Dutch manager, Jos Hermens, himself a former world class distance runner, Gebrselassie earned nearly $500,000 in 1995 alone and he signed a contract with adidas worth $1m through to the end of 2000.
On the athletics results front, and presumably therefore also on the income ledger, the next three years were each better for Haile than 1995.
It is easy to see therefore why Gebrselassie is reluctant to confirm his elevated status in the police force by spending six months cloistered ina police academy.
He started running for the police athletics clubi n Assela on a cadet’s wage of $20 a month and worked his way up through the ranks of sport and the constabulatory simultaneously.
“I became a major immediately after the AtlantaOlympic Games,” Gebrselassie revealed.
"After winning (his fourth world title) in Seville they were talking about making me a lieutenant-colonel. It’s not official, although I’ve started receiving the salary already.
"The police employed me as a runner. That’s also acomplicated thing because I’m already a high authority, a high official. That’s why they’re talking a lot about ‘he’s not working as a police officer.’
“If I become a lieutenant-colonel I have to be in the police college and learn a bit about the rules. It’s very difficult to do a thing like that.You must be six months there at the police college. I have no time.”
Perhaps when he retires from the track, although he is already set for a life in athletics beyond competition by supporting 35 young runners in his Global adidas club.
The club occupies one floor of Gebrselassie’s seven-storey commercial building on the bustling Asmera Road. Construction is also underway on an eight-storey complex, further indication of Gebrselassie’s financial stake in the future of Ethiopia.
“The outside world knows Ethiopia as being simplya very poor country with famine, war, internal conflicts and nothing else. All these problems are not God-given and can only be solved by our own efforts,” he said.
“Everyone of us, irrespective of where we live, has a national duty for our country. Ethiopia is today and will always be our responsibility and nobody else’s. So I choose to stay home because I can make a difference here.”
Tekeye Gebrselassie looks across at his little brother, admiringly: "He’s a good one. He’s honest. He likes the Ethiopian people and they like him, they support him.
“He likes his country. Yeah, he loves his country.”