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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Gebrselassie's retirement: Looking back and forward

Gebrselassie's retirement: Looking back and forward

A full month has passed since my last post – my sincere apologies for the silence.  Given the posting “funk”, it was always going to take a big news story to re-ignite my writing, and that story was provided in New York on Sunday.  Not by the victories of Kiplagat and Gebremariam, but rather by the post-race retirement of perhaps the greatest distance runner we’ve ever seen, Haile Gebrselassie.

Evidence of how significant that announcement was comes from the Times newspaper in the UK, where I’ve been for the last two weeks.  The Times is a top newspaper and comprehensively covers pretty much all the world’s sport.  But on Monday, the actual New York result was reduced to a single paragraph in a piece about Gebrselassie’s retirement, and that was only to mention how his last words before stepping off the course were to encourage his countryman Gebremariam to “catch up with the others”.

A stellar career

Gebrselassie was the sport’s brightest light for close to 20 years.  Usain Bolt is now the name that everyone recognizes, inside and outside the sport, and Gebrselassie probably didn’t achieve such wide appeal (such is the nature of 100m running compared to distance running).  However, within athletics, he was transcendent.

His star first shone in 1991, when he won the 5000m-10000m double at the World Junior championships.  This was followed up by 10,000m gold in Stuttgart, the first of four such titles.  And then in 1994, the world record feast began.  When Gebrselassie “arrived” to the scene, the 5000m world record stood at 12:58.39 (Said Aouita) and the 10,000m record was 26:52.23 (William Sigei).  Systematically (and aided by a few others – Paul Tergat, Salah Hissou, Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen), the record books were rewritten in a series of extra-ordinary performances, which left commentators incredulous at the margin by which he improved the marks (11 seconds over 5,000 in Zurich being the most memorable), and athletics followers inspired by the manner in which he did it. 

By the time Gebrselassie’s attention switched to the roads, and he had broken his last world record on the track, the records stood at 12:39.36 and 26:22.75 – improvements of 19 and 30 seconds respectively.  Two Olympic 10,000m titles, plus world records indoors over 3,000 and two miles, world titles at distances ranging from 1,500m (indoors) to 10,000m meant his career was already up with the greats of distance running.

He was no less successful on the roads.  World records at the half marathon suggested the transition could be successful, and it was.  His first attempt at the marathon ended in a record debut, but a somewhat disappointing third place in London in 2002 (disappointing because with that pedigree, much was expected).  It took him some time to figure out the marathon, but once he found the formula, he stuck with it (and faced criticism as a result of selecting paced “time-trials” and staying away from the likes of London and New York), but it saw him produce five of the current ten best times in history.   

The limit for human performance? Gebrselassie has invited the discussion

The peak was his 2:03.59 in Berlin in 2008, the current world record and the catalyst for much debate about the limit for human performance.  His presence in the sport has been followed by such talk, such is his stature and achievement – as our friend David Epstein has written for Sports Illustrated, Gebrselassie “invented the modern distance world record”.  He has also been the catalyst for a generation of new superstars  – Kenenisa Bekele inherited the mantle of track world record holder, Sammy Wanjiru, Tsegay Kebede and a host of other marathon stars (younger than ever) have seen what is possible and are threatening 2:04 in almost every race. 

Gebrselassie is the giant on whose shoulders many have stood, and are standing, and that impact on the sport can never be understated – just as Geb himself was inspired to run by listening to radio coverage of Miruts Yifter’s success in the 1980 Olympic Games, so to his achievements have inspired many, from his successors on the track and road, to the weekend warrior who improves his 10km PB to 49:49 thanks to the inspiration provided by Gebrselassie running through the Brandenburg Gates on route to a 2:03:59.

Gebrselassie the racer – criticism for avoiding marathon competition

Many (ourselves included) have pointed to one disappointment in Gebrselassie’s career – his reluctance to race over the marathon distance in the last five years.  His choice to race in paced record attempts in Dubai and Berlin between 2008 and 2009 produced big pay-days, very fast times and memorable performances, and that is as much a “business” decision as anything else, and Gebrselassie had earned that right through his career.  But of course, this happened in parallel with the emergence of a new breed of marathon runner, including Kebede, Wanjiru and Martin Lel on the streets of London, Chicago and New York. Gebrselassie opted out of the Beijing Olympics, citing pollution, and fans were understandably disappointed at not seeing the showdown between him and Wanjiru.

This is borne purely out of a desire to see the greatest ever taking on challengers on the roads as he did on the track.  Make no mistake, Gebrselassie was an outstanding “racer”, and provided some of the sport’s greatest moments with his pure racing ability.  Most will immediately recall the Sydney Olympic 10,000m gold he won in an epic final straight sprint with Paul Tergat.  But it was four years earlier, in Atlanta, that the biggest race between the two took place – by Sydney, both were struggling with injuries and just slightly below their best.  Not so in 1996.  Tergat had just claimed his fourth World Cross Country title, in South Africa, by producing a 2:31 kilometer at 10km to drop everyone, including Gebrselassie, who had tripped over a log immediately prior to that surge.

By the Olympic Games, Tergat was at the height of his powers, as was Salah Hissou, and Gebrselassie faced them down, responded to a 2:30 kilometer by Tergat at 8km, and claimed his first Olympic Gold.  Gebrselassie’s feet were hurt by that race, and it was, as I recall, the origin of his Achilles tendon problems.  I believe that was his toughest race ever, though for sheer excitement, the defence of his Olympic gold in Sydney eclipsed it. 

The marathon is of course a different animal altogether – the recent Chicago Marathon duel between Kebede and Wanjiru was as close as I can recall seeing a marathon get to track racing strategy.  So understandably, Gebrselassie’s marathon career did not feature those head-to-head duels.  However, it also didn’t feature a win over a top-ranked opponent in a competitive race, and if Geb is really retired, his career will have ended without a win in a major marathon other than Berlin (and those were arguably set up as record attempts, though of course James Kwambai provided surprise company for the world record).  Does this matter?  Probably not, and history won’t recall what Gebrselassie didn’t achieve, especially compared to all that he DID do.  However, for those following the sport over the last five years, there’ll always be that unanswered curiosity at having never seen their great go head to head with the likes of Wanjiru and Kebede.

Is he really done?  Or will he return?

So the question on everyone’s mind is this:  Is he really done?  Will his retirement announcement stick, or were those just the words of a disappointed athlete, speaking from emotion rather than rational thought.

In the build-up to New York, there was nothing to suggest retirement. Over at LetsRun.com, the quote of the day from one of his press conferences was “Why should I say I will retire in three or four years? You retire the very moment you utter those words".  That is not the talk of someone contemplating hanging up the shoes.  Numerous times at the big pre-race press conference, Gebrselassie jokes about being young.  He has spoken for years of his desire to race the marathon at the London Olympic Games in 2012.  And he recently committed to running the Tokyo Marathon in 2011.  The point is that everything leading up to the New York race suggested a plan to race for at least two more years.  Then suddenly, at 16 miles, knee pain during the race, a DNF, and he retires?

Gebrselassie is, as pointed out in this “insider’s piece”, an emotional character, prone to making some sweeping statements.  For example, he has been quick to speculate on whether or not he will break 2 hours for the marathon, only to “moderate” his comments in subsequent statements.  He once withdrew from the 1997 World Championships 10,000m race, saying that the track was too hard (he even requested that they water the track during the race), but was “persuaded” to run by the federation.

He seems to often express his thoughts without “filtering” them, and holding a press conference so soon after such a disappointing result was bound to produce some kind of “over-statement”.  Retirement was extreme, nobody saw that coming, but that makes me believe even more that Gebrselassie may turn around that decision.  Of course, you don’t “moderate” retirement – you’re either racing or you’re retired, but I have a feeling Gebrselassie will race again.  New York is just one disappointment, a relatively isolated “failure” in the larger scheme of the last four years.  Gebrselassie had won his last five marathons since 2008, in incredibly fast times.  Only 2 months ago, he produced his fastest half-marathon time since 2008 when winning the Great North Run.

Then again, Gebrselassie has always lived outside the sport, and his array of businesses in Ethiopia, coupled with his desire to move into politics, may be the pull that is needed to remove him from the sport.  He himself has said that his proudest day is the day he pays his 500 employees in various businesses in Ethiopia.  His legacy is far greater than a collection of medals and records.  Boxers are famous for pushing on for one fight too many, one comeback too many, and it’s always a sad end to a career to see a desperate old man taking a beating.  Gebrselassie is not that person yet, but perhaps he recognizes that an isolated failure at New York is not the worst time to go out, and he’ll be one of the few who retires near the top.

Only time will tell, but if I had to guess right now, I expect we haven’t seen the last of the “Emperor”.  But I also have a feeling we have seen the best of him.  And we should count ourselves as fortunate, because again, whether you’re a 49:59 10km runner, a sub-4 minute miler, or an aspirant 2:03 marathon runner, Haile Gebrselassie has played no small part in your belief and achievement.

And hopefully it won’t be another month before a follow-up post (apologies once again!)