Haile Gebrselassie: International Distance Champion and Ethiopian Statesman
One of the greatest distance runners of all time hails from the nation of Ethiopia, which has sparred with rival Kenya for the distance running crown in numerous distance events over the last several decades. Disney made an inspirational film about Haile's story titled Endurance, and Gebrselassie has captured international attention through his exploits. One famous anecdote about Haile involves his regular daily commute to school as a child, in which he ran about 10 kilometers to and from the establishment. Interestingly, Haile's forte in the middle part of his career would become the 10K race. The 10K was also probably Haile's last Olympic track race as he ran to a 6th-place finish in the Beijing 10,000-meter in support of his countrymen.
Haile's break-out year was undoubtedly 1995. The year before in Hengelo, Holland, Haile set his first world record in the 5000m race in a time of 12:56. Haile set a number of world records and bests in 1995, including the two-mile, the 10K, and again in the 5K. In 1997, again in Hengelo, Haile received some extensive press coverage when he competed against Noureddine Morceli for a million-dollar prize for the first man to break 8 minutes for two mile. Though neither man got the prize money, Haile came within two seconds on the May 31st event, where Morceli eventually dropped out in the middle of the race.
Haile's middle career represented a storm of Olympic Gold Medals in the 5K and 10K. Perhaps his closest victory came after some Achilles trouble in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. In the 10K race, Haile faced Kenyan rival Paul Tergat. Haile was not up to form the entire race, and Tergat took advantage of this to lead Haile into the final lap. As he also did in Dubai in January of this year, Haile ignored the pain of injury and came back to win the event by just 9 hundredths of a second. As many have pointed out, this was a closer margin of victory than the 100-meter dash final in that Olympics, a race 100 times shorter! Maurice Greene of the United States won the 100 meter with a lead time of .12 seconds. Shortly after completing the race, Haile collapsed from the effort of fighting the pain, and was eventually admitted to the hospital for surgery. The picture below indicates his efforts in that race, where he is shown currently in second place just before the bell (final) lap. Terget is just behind him in this picture in third. Just a few seconds after this picture, Tergat streaks out and attempts to run away from the field, but Haile chases him down, injury and all. The YouTube movie just below this picture shows some footage of that Sydney Olympic 10,000 meter and other famous races of Haile's, along with footage that highlights his role as an activist for basic human rights within his country.
A comprehensive list of IAAF world records is available here: http://www.iaaf.org/statistics/records/inout=O/index.html Haile's two-mile and ten-mile world bests are not IAAF recognized distances, so they do not show up on the list. In 2004, Haile's track performances were overshadowed by countrymen Kenenisa Bekele, who broke Haile's world records in the 5K and 10K amidst further Achilles tendonitis trouble for Haile. Bekele's records in those events still stand, including an incredible 26:17 10K set in 2005.
Since this point, Haile has moved from the track to compete in road racing and marathoning. He rapidly overtook Paul Tergat and Khalid Khannouchi's world records in the event, and his best time of 2:03:59 set at the Berlin venue in 2008 still stands today. Haile has been relentlessly pursuing faster times in the marathon, and he is undoubtedly pushing the envelope to get as close he can to a barrier which is starting to enter marathon consciousness: a sub 2:00 time. Such a result would invoke international recognition in similar fashion as Roger Bannister's historic sub-4:00 mile, except it would be 26.2 miles at a shocking 4:34 pace per mile.
Haile is well known for being a genial and kind-spirited competitor, and his countrymen have enormous respect and love for the icon. Gebrselassie has expressed a desire to become involved in politics after he retires from athletics, and he is a known human rights advocate within his nation. Haile did not run the Olympic Marathon in Beijing in 2008 after professing concerns about air quality, but he is definitely Ethiopia's marathon gold medal and world record hope. Run on, Haile!