Gebrselassie: next in line in a long-running dynasty

The favourite to win both the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals in Atlanta was born in a mud hut in Ethiopia. Pat Butcher met him in his homeland
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The Independent Online
Sixteen years ago this month, a barefoot youngster, living in a mud hut in sub-Saharan Africa, ignored his father's imprecations to stop wasting the batteries in the transistor radio. He continued to listen rapt as the commentator described the tiny Miruts Yifter unleashing his withering sprint to beat all the "big boys" in the Olympic 10,000 metres in Moscow. Yifter "the Shifter" repeated the feat in the 5,000m later that week. And the seven-year-old danced out in the fields again, oblivious to the thin air of the East African highlands, for he knew exactly on which track his future lay.

In two weeks time, barring upsets of seismic proportions, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia will emulate his childhood hero Miruts, and take gold in both the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000m. He has deliberately run sparingly this summer, only three 1500m to sharpen the finishing speed that was already the equal of Miruts's, and a 3,000m in which he outdistanced many of his leading opponents for Atlanta gold. He goes to the Games as holder of five world records, including superlative marks for his Olympic events.

The intervening years since 1980 have not, however, been easy. When you are the seventh of 10 children, born to a peasant farmer in one of the world's poorest, famine-ridden countries, opportunities do not just drop like manna. You have to pursue them, earn them. Young Haile (last names in Ethiopia are patronymics) had to have a certain tenacity. As with that transistor radio, his father was the first obstacle. "He couldn't understand why I wanted to run to school every day," Haile related in Addis Ababa a couple of months ago. "He said there is no future in athletics. He wanted me to be a doctor, or a schoolteacher, or something like that."And now? "Now?" His smile is like a beacon. "Now, he is proud. Now he has a television and a tape machine, and he has all my races on tape. He knows them by heart.''

The family farm, now with a brick-built house, is outside Arsela, the capital of Arsi Province, some 180 kilometres south-east of Addis Ababa. Haile goes back only once a year nowadays, usually in autumn, after the track season. When he comes, his father kills a sheep, and as many of the 10 children that can make it back there will congregate under the spreading tree beside the mud hut, to celebrate.

Haile lives in Addis Ababa today. Although there is almost constant sunshine, it is not particularly hot. For Addis is the world's third-highest capital city, some 2,400m above sea-level. That is one of the reasons why he is so good, for it was here that the advantages of the now obligatory altitude training for distance runners was discovered some 40 years ago.

In the late 1950s, the Swedish Army was invited to Addis, to advise on the training of the Imperial Guard to Haile Selassie, the man who would be the last in a dynasty of Emperors, reputed to go back to Solomon, 3,000 years before. With the Swedish tradition of "fartlek" (go as you will) on forest tracks, a daily run for the guardsmen was introduced. One Major Onni Niskanen soon realised that the conjunction of altitude and regular training was producing surprising results. The runners in the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome discovered it too, when the hitherto unknown Abebe Bikila ran away from them in the last kilometre, becoming the first black African to win Olympic gold. It was a victory charged with symbolism. The race, held at night, was lit by soldiers holding burning torches, and Abebe ran barefoot on a road which included the cobblestones of the Appian Way. With the finish at the Arch of Constantine, Abebe timed his winning effort to begin one kilometre earlier, at the obelisk looted from the north Ethiopian city of Axum, the alleged birthplace of the Queen of Sheba, seat of the Solomonic dynasty, and claimed resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Despite an appendectomy six weeks before the 1964 Games, Abebe repeated the feat even more emphatically in Tokyo, winning by the extraordinary margin of four minutes. He went on to a third Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. Sporting mortality caught up with him this time, and he dropped out after 17 of the 42 kilometres. But Ethiopia was not denied. Victory went to his colleague, Mamo Wolde, who had begun his Olympic career at 400m in Melbourne in 1956. Abebe suffered a more serious setback a year later. A crash in the Volkswagen given him after his second Olympic gold broke his spine, and he spent the remaining years of his life in a wheelchair. He was pushed on to the track in Munich in 1972, to one of the most emotional receptions ever witnessed at an Olympic Games. He died from a brain haemorrhage in Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Britain the following year, just months before the 3,000-year Solomonic dynasty ended with the 80-year-old Haile Selassie being driven (in a Beetle, no less) from his palace.

A communist regime, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam and known as the Dergue, took over, and the "terror'' commenced. Crop failures in the north-east resulted in a million people dying from famine, and government opponents were regularly assassinated. Again details are scarce, but Abebe's Olympic successor, Mamo, was involved, and remains a casualty, languishing in an Addis jail for the last three years. According to Haile's coach, Wolde Meskel Kostre, "Mamo was in charge of a neighbourhood co-operative during the Dergue time, and a man was killed there. He was supposed to be involved, although nobody thinks Mamo shot him himself. But he hasn't been charged after three years. They should either charge him or let him go".

Miruts is the third member of the illustrious Ethiopian trinity. Yifter "the Shifter'' is alive and well, and living in Addis. He has a desk with a nameplate on it in the athletics federation offices at the ramshackle National Stadium in the middle of the city. But Miruts's problems came during his career. Road signs are rare in Ethiopia, even on the streets of Addis Ababa, and it is tempting to think that this cavalier attitude to directions rubbed off on Miruts. In the 1971 United States v Africa match, he stepped off the track thinking he had won the 5,000m, when, in fact, he still had one lap to run. In the Munich Olympics the following year, he won a bronze in the 10,000m, but contrived to miss the start of his 5,000 heat. Ethiopia lost the way altogether to the Montreal Olympics in 1976, joining the boycott (over New Zealand's rugby links with South Africa). But Miruts made no mistake in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, winning the 5,000 and 10,000m golds with scintillating sprints.

This is the dynasty which Haile Gebrselassie is expected to continue in Atlanta. But, in contrast to his predecessors, who barely ran outside Ethiopia between Olympics, and whose lack of a European language perpetuated the mystery, the youngster is a competent English speaker and an accommodating interviewee, whose principal regret during the time that we followed him around Addis seemed to be that he had missed a couple of training sessions.

Haile lives with a brother and sister in a modest house on the outskirts. According to his manager, Jos Hermens, the youngster earned something close to $500,000 (pounds 333,333) last year, in contrast to the Ethiopian average of $100. He was also finalising a new sportswear contract with Adidas, which will bring him $1m for the next five years.

Yet he makes a point of not flaunting his wealth, saying: "If you want to stay one of the people, you must act like the people." He contends that this springs mainly from a fear of losing his vocation. "What frightens me about a big car or a beautiful house is that I would lose interest in athletics. It's like having a pair of new shoes, and being afraid to walk in the forest, and get them dirty." This touchingly naive view seems entirely genuine, and he says it is one of the reasons he has not learned to drive, despite having two Mercedes limousines, won in consecutive World Championships.

If he wants to act like Joe Public, he is doing a great job. Most of the time, he is driven around in a beaten-up Peugeot 304, and although people recognise him as the only international personality in the country, there is none of the hysteria I saw while following Said Aouita through Casablanca during his heyday. Indeed, there was a priceless contrast in style one morning, when Haile arrived at the National Stadium for training at the same time as the Olympic women's 10,000 metres champion, Derartu Tulu. She cruised up in her Mercedes, while he stepped out of a typical local taxi, whose roadworthiness would test the ingenuity of any responsible mechanic to give it a safety certificate.

But his determination to remain one of the boys was tested severely the following day, when he went for a photo shoot in Mercato, the largest open-air market in East Africa. ''Empty your pockets before you go," he had advised. But the exercise came to an uncomfortable conclusion after 10 minutes, when a concerned citizen, oblivious to the demands of marketing, walked over and yelled: "What are you doing here, fooling about. You should be training for Atlanta!"

Haile retired hurt, the more so from knowing that he goes to bed at around 9pm each night, so that he can do his first training session early, often before dawn at 6am. It is a regime which began in his youth when he shared a battered pair of running shoes (which he has kept) with an elder brother, ignoring his father's criticism over running the five kilometres to school and back. The books which he carried have even now left him with a markedly crooked left arm in competition. When he was 16, he left the family farm and went north-west to Addis with his brother - "the first time I saw electricity". They joined the city police athletics club, but the only available event was a marathon. He ran two hours and 52 minutes and finished 99th. ''I thought my running was over when I saw that position, but as soon as I lost the stiffness, I decided to continue."

Earning $20 a month as a police cadet, he worked his way up through the national junior cross-country team. But the big difference came, his manager says, when he won the world junior 5,000 and 10,000m in 1992. The Ethiopian federation has always been strict with its athletes. Whereas the new Olympic champion, Derartu, obeyed instructions to go home, Haile stayed on in Europe to race. "He really is the nicest person I've ever worked with," Hermens, himself a former world-class runner, says. "But he is also one of the most determined. He just faxed the federation, and said: 'I'll be home later'. He knows what he wants, and quietly goes about trying to achieve it. For example, I didn't have to tell him to take English classes, he just does it."

Haile is eager to please "his guests". A casual question about religion (there is Christian imagery everywhere) results in a trip out of town to a Marian festival at a church at Intoto, the capital before Addis. He teases us that he is "going to do something special here" after Atlanta. It turns out that he will get married. We have seen his girlfriend briefly, and he has suggested that, although he cares for her, she understands that athletics comes first. Given the returns, who would argue with that?

For a 23-year-old country boy, born in a mud hut, he is confident enough to face and respond cheerily to most questions.

If he does not understand a word, he asks for its meaning and he demurs only when the subject turns to politics. His elder brother, Tekeye, was in the Armed Forces during the Mengistu era. He is now in the Netherlands (Haile's competition base) and is about to be granted political asylum, for reasons which Haile does not want to discuss.

When asked about his own politics, there is a firm rebuff. If he is as aware of the contrast between Ethiopia and the rest of the world as he is of his own riches vis-a-vis his compatriots, he is not letting on. "We have a beautiful country here, some rich land, and good weather, but the people are poor. I don't know why it's like that. I see other countries with bad weather, and I ask myself if the people are unhappy. Perhaps the only good thing that foreign people know about Ethiopia is the athletes. When we succeed, when I succeed, that does good for our country.''

His words may be guarded, but his actions, thankfully, are not. All the indications are that there is going to be a fresh round of benefit for Ethiopia in Atlanta.