Why this giant of athletics shouldn't be like the rest of us
22:00 GMT, 15 July 2012
'You're sweaty,’ says Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest distance runners of all time, with that infectious grin taking over his face; his eyes bright.
Of course I am. We have been running — well, I have been running. Gebrselassie, meanwhile, has barely broken out of a walk — through central London on a surprisingly warm summer morning.
It is a surreal experience. Commuters turn and stare as we jog through Green Park, wondering if this 5ft 5in man with the incomprehensibly slender hips, small steps and distinctive running style is the four-time world 10,000 metres champion and former marathon world record-holder.
Running duo: Haile Gebreselassie with Laura Williamson
He runs that way, his arms crooked, because he used to carry his books in his left hand on the long walk to and from school.
‘Always you hold your book on the left side,’ he says.
‘You have to hold not just this book, otherwise it drops. To take care of your book, my left hand is not active. It is more relaxed.
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‘Plus, I was barefoot. It’s easy to develop that strength. I had my first shoes when I was 14, I think.’
Gebrselassie is 39 now. Think of the pounding that fragile body must have taken over the years; the miles upon miles he has covered during gruelling, three-hour training runs near his home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
That he nearly made it to a fifth Olympic Games is a remarkable feat in itself, but his disappointment at missing out on London is tinged with realism.
‘Training the way I want to train, it’s not any more there,’ he says. ‘Of course the motivation is still there, but the discipline…
‘Mentally you don’t accept it. But physically Yes. I wanted to run fast.But physically No, this is your maximum.
‘You’re very disappointed. When people run fast and sprint, when your body’s not replying… ’ He trails off.
‘That’s how the rest of us feel,’ I say.
He smiles gently, but his eyes give him away: Gebrselassie isn’t used to feeling ‘like the rest of us’.
Legend: The Ethiopian runner will be remembered for years to come
That’s when it hits me. I’m not sure I want to see him run in London, anyway. I think I’d prefer to remember him destroying opponents on the track before he moved up to the marathon and excelled at that as well.
I felt the same when I watched Venus Williams’s meek first-round exit in the women’s singles at Wimbledon this year. I feel the same about Paula Radcliffe’s attempts to end her Olympic hoodoo in London.
Should we applaud these athletes’ brave, determined struggles against injury, illness and their refusal to accept the passage of time
Key question: Is it better to go out at the top of your game or keep trying until you fail
Or is it acceptable for us to feel a certain tinge of sadness; wishing that they had gone out in a blaze of glory befitting their careers
I am convinced it’s the latter.
I’m glad I will be able to look back on my four-mile run with Gebrselassie with fondness. I was sweaty and he was not: I don’t want him to be ‘like the rest of us’.
Haile Gebrselassie is the mentor to the G4S 4teen programme, helping 14 young athletes achieve their dream to compete at London 2012: www.g4ssport.com
What they said
Team USA basketball star and 2008 Olympic gold medallist Seimone Augustus laughed, more than a little embarrassed, when I asked her what she knows about the Team GB girls she will face in Manchester this week: ‘Erm… I’m going to learn a lot. Read me their names. Three of them play in the States I know their schools.’
Who Azania Stewart (on the ball) is one of the Team GB players
Safe to say the likes of Russia and Australia may provide a bigger threat to the USA’s crown than the first British Olympic women’s basketball team at London 2012.
… And this is what I've been doing this week
Wincing at Shun Fujimoto’s exploits in the 1976 Olympic Games during the BBC’s excellent Faster, Higher, Stronger documentary about gymnastics. He competed on the pommel horse and rings despite having broken his right knee – helping Japan to win the team gold medal.
Enjoying fricasseed salmon and organic chicken at Tottenham’s impressive new training complex before Andre Villas-Boas met the written press. I wonder how long that will last (the food I mean, obviously – not the manager)…
In attendance: Laura went to Andre Villas-Boas's conference for the written press
Watching Perri Shakes-Drayton’s 53.78sec PB as she won the 400 metres hurdles at Crystal Palace on Friday night. She said: ‘Today I thought to myself, “Come on girl. Pull your socks up”.’ She did – running the second fastest time by a Briton.
Performance of the week
Bradley Wiggins’ ‘perfect’ ride in the Tour de France time trial on Monday. ‘Winning’ doesn’t do it justice — he decimated the field.
Those gangly legs earned him the nickname ‘Sticks’ but they seemed to motor with barely any effort and his back was so level you felt he could have carried a pint of lager around the course without spilling a drop.
Star man: Bradley Wiggins has been in fine fettle