A Witness to Greatness
All right—so he’s human, after all. That was confirmed by the persistent cough that interrupted the post-race press conference hastily arranged in the tunnel behind the track at the Reggie Lewis center.
Posted Sunday, 1 February, 2004
Just minutes earlier, Haile Gebrselassie had displayed his nearly superhuman running prowess for an overflow crowd of 4,000 at the Adidas Boston Indoor Games.
It was only the third time the diminutive Ethiopian, regarded by many as the greatest distance runner of all time, had run in the United States. On the first of those visits, for the World Cross Country Championships at Franklin Park in 1992, Gebrselassie ran in the junior division as an unheralded 19-year-old. But in the intervening 12 years, his legend has grown to almost mythical proportions. Consider:
- He has won two consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 10,000 meters, with a chance to capture an unprecedented third later this summer in Athens.
- No one has ever run faster at 5,000 or 10,000 meters. His respective world records of 12:39 and 26:22 are beyond the comprehension of all but the world’s greatest distance runners—and even most of them are in awe of the marks too.
- He has been the subject of a worldwide distributed, critically acclaimed movie portraying his life, from his youth as a poor farm boy who ran 10 km to school and back each day, to his current life, in which he has become a national icon with vast influence over the entire nation of Ethiopia, as well as global distance running star.
On this night however, Haile was simply enjoying the moment. Anticipation hung in the air as the early events were run. Those events, packed with world-class talent, seemed almost a prelude to the main event. Just before 7:00 p.m. the runners competing in the men’s 3,000-meter race were led to the track. The final athlete in the group, Haile appeared relaxed and smiling, greeting the wildly enthusiastic crowd, many of whom were from a local Ethiopian community, waving national flags and screaming for their national hero.
The field included Bernard Lagat, a 1,500-meter bronze medalist from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Markos Ganetti, a fellow world-class Ethiopian, and a passel of top U.S. middle distance runners, all looking to make a mark in a race with the legend.
From the start, it was clear the crowd was watching something special. Trailing a pair of rabbits, Haile cruised through 400 meters in 58 seconds and 800 in 1:58. Only Ganetti remained close, the rest of the field left behind by a full turn of the track. The mile went in a stunning 3:59, as if it were a regular routine for the man to clock a sub four-minute mile and keep on running, which it probably is. With about 500 meters left, Gebrselassie left Ganetti behind, accelerating off the far turn. How could running so fast look so easy? It was almost unreal. In the midst of his final push to the finish, he gave the Ethiopian throng a wink and a wave, as if to say, “Running at near world record pace is not so hard; thanks for the support.” Although the world record proved to be out of reach, Haile crossed the finish line in 7:35:24, the fastest indoor 3,000 meters ever run in the U.S.
I could have run faster, but what can you do?
“I could have run faster, but what can you do?” Gebrselassie commented to a small pack of reporters afterwards. “It was a little dry in here and I couldn’t breathe easily,” he added, punctuated by the pesky cough he was unable to douse, despite taking sips from a nearby water bottle. “But it was wonderful, everything was great.” Obviously thrilled by his race and the welcome he received from the fans, he said, “I knew there were Ethiopians here (in Boston), but I didn’t expect this. The crowd seemed like it was half Ethiopian.”
He commented on the upcoming Olympics: “The Olympics are seven months from now. We will see.” Then when asked if he might someday return to Boston to run in yet another kind of distance race, the 26-miler from Hopkinton to Boston, he smiled widely and replied, “Yes. Maybe I will”
Not often does one have the opportunity to witness sporting greatness. Like Babe Ruth, Mohammed Ali, and soccer legend Pele, Haile Gebrselassie has transcended his chosen sport, lifting it to a higher level. He has shown others what is possible, even though they are unable to achieve it themselves. Perhaps someday, another distance runner will emerge to eclipse his records. But until then, Haile Gebrselassie can rightfully claim the title of the greatest distance runner of all time. There are 4,000 people in Boston who would surely agree.