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Haile Gebreselassie : Second Thoughts on a Legend

By Mitiku Adisu 

The likes of Haile Gebreselassie live or die step by step. The journey from a village in Assela to New York is certainly long and arduous, and possibly a treacherous one from here on. Haile’s future is entwined with the fate of Ethiopians. And Ethiopians are unpredictable, depending on where you stand in your politics. Does anyone have a record of the mileage on Haile’s soul, in terms of how he feels? Don’t tell me Adidas does; Adidas only sells shoes, in-soles, and socks.

Ethiopians are unpredictable and patriotic. And their patriotism is frequently demeaning and hinders the achievement of the goal. Recent missteps by Haile are instructive. Haile (uncharacteristically, say some) showered PM Meles Zenawi with undeserved accolades and, to boot, presented him with the very jersey he wore to break a 10K World Record. Let me say this before we go any further; the place for that jersey is not the prime minister’s drawers but in the national museum. And I am unanimous on this!

Well, between the town and the city, Haile was able to make a bunch of money. That is, he had money he could keep as well as money he could spend. He is lucky he was not born during the Imperial Era. Lucky still, his career took off after the reign of 

Colonel Mengistu ended with his flight south to Tergat Land.

PM Meles came on the heels of Col. Mengistu, whatever that means. And Haile has never had it better. He built himself mansions and a business empire, and he created jobs for hundreds of Ethiopians. For that, he is grateful. And so, one fine morning, the 37-year-old athlete decided to make the PM he had known since his teen years the object of that gratitude. Some say he should not have gotten that close to the PM after the latter deprived Ethiopians of their voice. It could be Haile was “asked” to share the social capital he has been hoarding to help smooth out rising public contempt for the incumbent party. Of course, Haile could have stayed away from entangling himself in local politics, but then he did not. The rest of us, likewise, would not!

Haile’s decision to retire and then quickly take back his word does tell us something about how he functions. It could be that he is susceptible to strong suggestions. Having publicly endorsed PM Meles, it was only later that he realized what he had done in terms of bruising his legendary persona in the public eye. Let us remember he took his first baby steps under the shadow of a train of running greats: Abebe Bikila, Bashaye Feleke, Wami Biratu, Mamo Wolde, Wehib Masresha, Shibiru Regassa, Mohammed Kedir, Tolossa Kotu, Yohannes Mohammed, Eshetu Tura, Miruts Yfter, Belayneh Densamo, and etcetera. These have now passed into the annals of distance running on account of the prevailing sense of nationhood and their perseverance to represent their country, expecting little in return. Could Haile have avoided identifying with the party in power or retracted his statement? Sure. But at what cost?

Haile made his international debut in 1992. The year 1992 was a year of great reversals. Having emerged from a totalitarian state, many wondered if Ethiopia was ready to go in a direction that steered clear of old mistakes. In little over a year, alas, Eritrea broke away, taking with it Ethiopia’s sea outlet. The country soon saw divisions along ethnic lines. The significance of the year 1992 is that things could have easily gone the other way—a mirror image, we might say, of the year 1974. Indeed, there was that possibility. But it did not happen.

By and large, we have been running in circles. Right turns have been found to be wrong turns and fraught with pain for generations to come, considering the decaying moral fabric and rampant social discord. Would the next batch of leaders choose the “wrong” turn (by not allowing foreigners to wield satanic grip over our destiny)? Twenty years later, we are hearing voices once again clamoring to reverse the choices of days gone by. You see how that fits in with Haile saying one thing one minute and taking it back the next? Can’t you see how he could shower his blessings on PM Meles and, a little later, have Birtukan Mideksa and her family as guests in his Hawassa Resort Hotel? One for the goose, one for the gander, and one for himself and the people.

Ethiopians are unpredictable but also forgiving. No one now cares to remember the public “outrage” (to borrow PM Meles’s favorite word) against singer Mahmoud Ahmed for appearing in Asmara for a grand celebration that established Eritrea as a breakaway nation. Songs by Mahmoud would have certainly brought memories to President Isaias of his university days in Addis or in the Sahel as a guerilla leader. Is it not ironic that, only a little later, Ethiopian music was banned in Eritrea? Could Mahmoud have turned down the invitation when the then Ethiopian president, Meles Zenawi, was the agent, the keynote speaker at, and a witness to the historic event? Look around and be flabbergasted by how, at present, Ethiopians can hardly get enough of Mahmoud. There is no reason why Haile’s case should be viewed differently.

As far as the retirement thing is concerned, Haile simply did not have the presence of mind to gauge the implications of his decision on a whole line of industries and livelihoods. Another unreported fact is that his mere appearance in New York did cause reverberations within the ranks of the running multitude (in the manner of the finds of the oldest human remains in Ethiopia in paleontological societies around the world). I strongly believe his not appearing would have altered the NY Marathon 2010 results. No one paid attention, for example, to the Man of the Hour, the little-known Gebre[-egziabher] Gebre[-mariam], whose first name “Gebre” could be reversed into a surname! In any case, Haile’s handlers, more than himself, recognized that the athlete still had millions of pennies per mile left in his diminutive frame. And they want to keep their share running.

Unlike most of us mortals, Haile could go to bed in his Adidas socks and shorts and wake up to find a fat check on his bedside table. Or he could switch to Nike and make a fatter one (depending on the fine print he signed to, which, if need be, could be reversed with the help of another lawyer). And for this and many more goodies, those who depended on Haile would have shamelessly kissed his feet if it took that to convince him to change his mind. It appears they succeeded this time, and quite swiftly at that. Warning: Those considering Haile for president should do so without fear of backtracking. It is perfectly legal to change your mind. Don’t be stiff-necked. If Haile did it, you could do it and see for yourselves how good it felt. If, however, you persist in your old ways, at least I have warned you that Haile is highly susceptible to outside influences and could surprise you by getting up one fine morning to announce on ESAT radio that he would not be going to the president’s office because he had better things to do than playing emperor without a throne. But then he could change his mind because now the PM owns the prize jersey. Theoretically, Haile could demand the return of that jersey, but then he might be throwing away the chance of becoming president. And that is why I suggest some political animal should squeeze mileage out of “Jersey for the Presidency”! Please don’t give me the stale reasoning that sports and politics do not mix until you answer why politicians run for office.    ■

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  • Haile Gebreselassie retired in May 2015. At 49, he is today among the wealthy patriotic elite in Ethiopia. He recently added Haile Grand Addis to his chain of hotels. He was co-founder in 2001 of the Great Ethiopian Run. In 2010, he made a controversial 1-year deal with Johnny Walker (for clean $100K!). As for the presidency, alas, he was beat to it by record-breaker, French-speaking diplomat, Ms. Sahle-Work Zewde!
  • Meles’s prisoner and pro-democracy activist Birtukan Mideksa completed a graduate degree at Harvard after being released from prison in 2010. In 2018, she became the first woman to chair the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Under her leadership, the 6th General Election of June 2021 was conducted peacefully with a high turnout and results much higher than the 2020 US elections. The election was momentous in other ways too; for the first time in 27 years the ethnically organized party of four (the Eprdf) was dissolved and voters were able to vote as Ethiopians! 
  • Meles Zenawi died two years after Birtukan gained her freedom. Six years later, the Tplf was thrown out of power, back into the bushes, signaling total rejection by Ethiopians of the “ethnic” caste system (in the guise of “ethnic federalism” and “revolutionary democracy”). Note: Tplf represented less than 6 percent of 110 million pop. The whereabouts of the jersey Haile wore to break a world record is unknown.
  • Colonel Mengistu turned 85 in May and has resided in Zimbabwe since 1991 with his wife of 54 years. Mengistu’s two daughters and son are medical doctors (via BBC Amharic).
  • Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in 2018. For now, the two nations are enemies no more. In 2020, ደም የተከፈለበት ባርነት dem yatakafalabat bar’nat (Slavery Paid in Blood) was published by Rezene Habte (a veteran Eritrean guerilla fighter). The book argued that a) “Eritrea” as an identity marker was forced from the get-go and, therefore, ahistorical and false; and b) that Eritreans have always been Ethiopians—and that Isaias Afewerki NEVER questioned his Ethiopian-ness. It is hard to say why this reversal or where the promoters are going with it. It could be an attempt to recast Ethiopian resentment following a) Eritrea’s “colonial” argument for separation—now hardly talked about b) formation of an Eritrean Orthodox Church, thus splitting the faith community c) loss of Ethiopia’s sea outlet d) Eritrea teaming up with the Tplf to scramble for and fight over resources resulting in over 80,000 deaths, followed by two decades of no-war, no-peace event erupting in yet another war. Interestingly, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed envisions (a vision shared by Haile Gebreselassie) a “greater” Ethiopia or, as he put it, returning Ethiopia to her “former glory” (whatever that means).
  • Isaias Afewerki turned 76 in February, and in a recent Al Jazeera interview he was heard reflecting on the brevity of life and his fondness for Ethiopia. Let us not forget that old man Isaias played a singularly significant (and destructive) role in events of the past 50 years—especially in Eritrea and Ethiopia. To think the reverberations of past events will not be felt in the coming years is the worst kind of deception. 
  • Gebre Gebremariam’s last meet was at the 2013 Rock ‘N’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon (via letsrun.com). He was runner-up to the winner of the race, Mo Farah.
  • Mahmoud Ahmed turned 81 in May. He still sings and enjoys growing public appreciation.
  • In 2010, a bridge was dedicated to Abebe Bikila in Ladispoli, Italy, for his 1960 Olympic Marathon victory.
  • Kenyan Paul Tergat, 53, is busy doing good after retiring from running competitively. In 2010, Tergat won NYRR’s Abebe Bikila Award. He and Haile remain friends. If you care for adrenaline rush, watch the 2000 Sydney Olympic 10K match between the 6’0” Tergat and the 5’5” Haile. Haile won. Strangely or luckily, it is New York Road Runner club (NYRR), not Ethiopia, conferring Abebe Bikila Award! Of the 31 awards made since 1978, two went to Ethiopians (Mamo Wolde, 1982; Haile Gebreselassie, 2015), 2 to Italians, 2 to Kenyans, 18 to Americans, 2 to Norwegians, etc. 

This article first appeared in Lissan magazine in 2010. It has been reposted here to review some of our assumptions as time has passed and also to honor Ethiopia’s brave athletes.

© 2010, 2022 by Mitiku Adisu. All rights are reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without prior permission of the author.

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