Athletics: Gebrselassie plays safe on Golden League bounty

Peter Martin on the Ethiopian star who has turned his back on record chasing
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THE FILM has no plot, no dialogue and no narration, but it certainly has a star. Haile Gebrselassie is the little Ethiopian distance runner who, by the age of 25, has set 14 world records, has won an Olympic and three world 10,000 metres titles, and now has had his life story turned into a movie. Such is Gebrselassie's dominance of world distance running, the silver screen is the closest he has come to any metal other than gold for some time.

Endurance is described by its makers, a Disney subsidiary, as an ethnodrama: they wanted to make a documentary about an east African distance runner, and made their choice at the Atlanta Olympics. Young Geb, charming, as quick to laugh as he is to run, is probably the greatest distance runner ever to bestride the planet. Gebrselassie was the obvious choice.

After the Games, the film crew spent four months in Asela, the small, mud-hut farming village where Gebrselassie grew up, and in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Now ready for an autumn release in America, according to one critic, who has seen a preview of the film, after about 30 minutes you've seen so much dry, parched earth that you desperately need a Perrier break, and it's hard not to begin swatting the flies away from your forehead.

Gebrselassie's life story is full of the great paradoxes of the modern- day African track star. A country of legendary wealth under the Queen of Sheba, Ethiopia is the second poorest nation in the world. By the age of 22, and although he could not drive, Gebrselassie owned two Mercedes Benz saloons yet remained a hero to the 51 million Ethiopians who try to exist on the country's average salary of just pounds 80 a year.

His exact earnings are a closely- guarded trade secret, but Gebrselassie is probably the world's best paid athlete, commanding $80,000 per race and earning in excess of $1.5 million last season. Today he'll be hoping to break the bank in Monte Carlo, maintaining his claim on the $1m bounty available to any athlete who goes through the seven-meet Golden League undefeated.

One of 10 children, the son of a sheep farmer, it is said that Gebrselassie's distinctive running style, with one arm crooked, was forged when he was a child. In the mornings his strict father insisted he perform chores around the farm, and young Geb would then run the three miles across country to school, as fast as he could, knowing that any lateness would be punished by whacks on the hand from the schoolmaster's ruler.

"I was very afraid of that punishment," Gebrselassie says, "so I ran fast." At the end of the school day, to avoid being yelled at by his father as he waited for more help on the farm, Gebrselassie would run all the way home: his school books were always tucked under his arm.

Gebrselassie moves with great sensitivity between the opulence of the five-star hotels that accommodate the world's top athletes and the abject poverty of his homeland. "I live between the two worlds," he says. When in Addis Ababa, he lives simply, surrounded by brothers and sisters. "You must act the way the people do," Gebrselassie says. "If my society is poor, I can't act rich. I have money, but I do not show it. I want to remain part of my people."

Perhaps it is Gebrselassie's need to save for the future which has seen him change his racing attitude this summer. In the past three years his rivalry with Kenya's Daniel Komen has rewritten the record books in a similar manner to when Coe and Ovett attacked the 800 metres and mile records nearly 20 years ago. But this summer Gebrselassie seems to have taken his foot off the gas.

After breaking the 10,000m world record by more than five seconds at Hengelo (running 26min 22.75sec, significantly at a meeting organised by his manager, Jos Hermens), and removing 0.38sec from the 5,000m mark in Helsinki (12:39.36), Gebrselassie has eschewed record chasing and therefore lucrative bonuses.

Instead, the Golden League appears to be his quest as he seems content to sit and kick, only doing just enough for victory. "I am sorry," he said after the 3,000m in Oslo, the first Golden League event a month ago, when he dropped off record pace with two laps to run, saving himself for a blistering finish to ensure first place. The $1m jackpot seems too good a main chance to miss.

Monte Carlo today is just the third stop on the golden merry-go-round. Gebrselassie is one of eight athletes with 100 per cent records in the series so far, but performances in other major track meetings have been affected by the concentration on the Golden League. On Wednesday at Stockholm - not a Golden League event - Marion Jones pulled out, citing injury, while Jonathan Edwards also limped away. If either do not compete in their events today, the share of the jackpot for those remaining, and winning, will grow.

In a sport which probably only has four bankable world stars - Jones and Michael Johnson, Hicham El Guerrouj and Gebrselassie - there are even fewer athletes who can go the whole season unbeaten. Except, perhaps, Gebrselassie, and he has staked $1m to prove he can.