It is a five-mile drive between Addis Ababa's international airport and its central square. When Haile Gebrselassie arrived home from last September's Sydney Olympics, having won the most spectacularly close 10,000 metres race of all time, his plane was escorted into Ethiopian airspace by Mig fighters. And the route to the city centre was lined all the way with an estimated one million cheering well-wishers.
This is the impact Gebrselassie, who will seek a record fifth consecutive world 10,000 metres title here, has upon his country. To his fellow citizens, this diminutive figure – 5ft 5in of unyielding intent – is Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali and more.
"People have never seen that kind of welcome in Ethiopia," he said with his habitual dazzling grin as he reflected upon his triumphal arrival and progress. "I didn't realise it was sport. I thought maybe something had happened in my country."
With a modesty that is equally habitual, he shrugged off the suggestion that he was the most celebrated of Ethiopians. "I will try to do something different, something special, to be more with the public," he said, adding with another grin: "You never know. Maybe I will become president." Given the widespread appeal of this athlete in a country riven by civil war and tribal rivalries, such a comment has more than a glimmer of possibility in it.
But Gebrselassie takes nothing for granted. When a reporter prefaced a question this week by saying that he had won five world titles, he swooped on the inaccuracy. "Not yet," he said.
The same phrase operates in relation to his stated ambition to move up to the marathon, an event held in supreme esteem by his fellow countrymen after the ground-breaking Olympic triumphs of Abebe Bikila. It has been an open secret that the Olympic champion would have made his marathon debut in London this year had he been fit enough. But his manager, Jos Hermens, denied that any firm deal had been done concerning his move up the distances, although he confirmed Gebrselassie would do the Olympic marathon in Athens three years from now.
"I don't know what Haile will decide to do," Hermens said. "If he wins again here, and feels great, and the crowd are supporting him, I know he will come back to me and say: 'Let's do some more years on the track'. You don't want to pin him down. You never want to stop his motivation."
The motivation of this farmer's son from the Arssi province is unrivalled within athletics, perhaps within sport. Last September he won the Olympic title carrying an Achilles tendon injury which required surgery the following month. He is here in Canada to defend his title in what will be his first race since that Olympic final, but you will not find anyone who is betting against him.
Gebrselassie's performance in Sydney, where he saw Kenya's former world record holder Paul Tergat surge past him with 250 metres to go and set off in an exhilarating pursuit that eventually saw him prevail by just nine-hundredths of a second – a smaller margin of victory than Maurice Greene's in the 100m final – stands as his favourite achievement in a career that has brought him 15 world records, two Olympic golds and, yes, just four world titles.
What adds lustre to that improbable, implacable effort is the fact that Gebrselassie was running in pain. "He was under a lot of pressure from the Ethiopian federation to run in Sydney, even though I think he had given it up in his own mind, basically because of the pain he was in," Hermens said. "He has a very strong mind – but even he could not keep on saying he didn't feel the pain after two years of it."
Although Gebrselassie made a tentative return to running just seven months ago, his manager believes he is in better shape than he was in Sydney. "I tell you he won't be beaten here," said Hermens. "It will be over his dead body."
It is hard to believe, however, that Gebrselassie's stock will fall in his homeland even if he does not return with another gold medal.
"I think Haile is more important to his country than Tiger Woods is to his," Hermens said. "In the United States, they have basketball stars and football stars. For Ethiopia there is only one sport. And Haile is a born diplomat, the only one who can unite his country.
"He has respect for everybody, and he has so much energy for people. You see him in the street at home, and he spends two hours giving autographs. I have to pull him away in the end. I don't know how he does it."
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