It is difficult to think of something harder, more exhausting, more lonely than long distance running -- kilometer upon endless kilometer, and then it all starts up again with the first day of training for the next race. But it's also hard to think of anything more natural than Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest athletes of all time and the new marathon world record holder, running long distances. He does it so naturally, so regally, to the point where it's hard to tell whether you see stress lines on his face or permanently-etched laugh lines on this wonderful man.
Gebrselassie will be featured in a fascinating documentary Saturday night on CNN's "Revealed." A network team spent three weeks with him prior to last September's Berlin Marathon, where he set the world record. Yet, crossing the finish line -- the climax of the race -- is not the point, rather the peek into the depths of this athlete.
Without a hint of pride or false modesty, Gebrselassie takes the viewer back to the huts of his village in Ethiopia where he grew up -- with no running water or electricity -- and points to the one from which he would leave every morning for his school 10 kilometers away. Later, he also tells how his parents pushed him to learn ("so I would turn out to be something normal, a policeman or teacher, like everybody, but I insisted on running") and meets with friends -- and of course runs with them. He also opens the doors of his magnificent home in Addis Ababa to the viewers, presenting his family and himself in business suits. He has his own movie theater in the capital, the only one which is not government run. In the field of education, he donates money to support underprivileged children and founded a school, which he named after his mother.
The 34-year old runner who has achieved everything in his career possible -- world records, Olympic gold medals and world championships -- gave a special interview this week to Haaretz, in which he stated he still has goals ahead of him. "There's always something to strive for," he said in a phone conversation from his home. "Now that I broke the marathon world record a few weeks ago, my goal now is to run a marathon in less than two hours and four minutes and to win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon. The moment I have a goal, there's motivation."
Do you think about the moment you'll stop running?
"The moment you start running, it's hard to stop, it's something too difficult to get started with, but even more difficult to stop. When I won't be among the top three, it'll be time for me to stop participating in competitions, but I won't stop as long a I don't have to."
How important are genetics and environment in creating a great runner?
"Natural talent is important, of course, but the most important thing is the place where you grew up. The region where I grew up [Asella, Arsi Province] is perfect for raising runners. It's the right elevation above sea level, about 2,500 meters. The food we ate, the atmosphere -- it's a perfect starting point. It's clear not everyone has the same ability, but no coach can give you the advantage of these conditions. I started running at age 5-6, I started to compete at 15. It's certainly no coincidence that out of this region emerged Kenenisa Bekele [world champion, Olympic champion and 10,000 meter world record holder], Derartu Tulu [women's world champion in 10,000 meters and gold medal winner in Barcelona] and Tirunesh Dibaba [women's world champion in 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters]."
His children don't have a chance
Your children grew up completely differently, but they have excellent genes. Could they be great runners like you?
"It's impossible. They may have good genes from daddy, and from mommy, too, but they grew up completely differently. I ran 10 kilometers in each direction to and from school; their school is less than three kilometers away, but they get rides there. They are busy all day on the computer and with the DVD. It's totally different. When you visit the village in which I grew up now, you still see children running barefoot to school and returning to help mom and dad, exactly as I did at their age. Some of them could be good runners."
Only the rural areas can generate great runners?
"To a certain degree, yes. Many still live this way, and I try to help with education. On the other hand, progress isn't always good. There's also advantages to the simple life of the village."
When Gebrselassie returned from the Sydney Olympics decorated with another gold medal, a huge crowd awaited him at the airport and in the streets of Addis. Only one other Ethiopian athlete ever received this kind of welcome before, the man Gebrselassie speaks of as his idol -- legendary runner Abebe Bikila. "The way he took the marathon at the Rome Olympics -- an unknown running barefoot -- gives me chills."
Are you familiar with the Israeli marathon runners of Ethiopian origin?
"Of course, Haile Satayin is my model. He proves that you can run at any age. How old is he, 50? I know him well, he's my friend. He is a shining example in my eyes. I also know Asafe (sic) Bimro. There are others whom I don't remember their names, but I met them at competitions. They don't run poorly at all, mainly because the region from which most of the Ethiopian Jews come is similar to the area in which I grew up. In Israel, in contrast, I'm not sure the conditions are good enough."
There are calls to boycott the Olympics in China because of human rights violations, its involvement in Darfur, and other reasons.
"It's not fair to use politics to undermine an event like the Olympics. It's not that there's no need to fight these things, but why wait for the Olympic Games? You need to do it all the time. When talking about the Olympics, it's supposed to bring everyone together -- East and West, North and South, black, white and yellow."
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