DUBAI // When Haile Gebrselassie applied a tearful full stop to his competitive running career after November’s New York Marathon, it was not just his phalanx of fans who felt an overwhelming sense of loss.
The trickle-down effect of the retirement of the one true household name in men’s distance-running was likely to be far reaching.
For a start, the commercial pull of marathons would almost certainly be weakened by the absence of the only runner who could realistically be considered what marketing-speak terms a “genuine brand”.
Happily, Gebrselassie, 37, has since gone back on his decision to retire. Shortly after returning to Addis Ababa from the United States, he tweeted: “Running is in my blood and I decided to continue competing.
“My announcement in New York was my first reaction after a disappointing race.”
He plans to race again as soon as next month, in the Tokyo marathon. However, distance running has now had time to ponder what the future will look like when the smiling Ethiopian does eventually vacate the stage for good.
When Tiger Woods was exiled from golf last year, many of his rival players spoke out in his defence, pointing out that his celebrity was the main reason they were able to play for such vast sums of money every week.
The same applies for marathon running, albeit on a somewhat lesser scale. For the past four years, organisers of the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon have been able to call their race the world’s richest, with US$250,000 (Dh920,000) going to the winners of the men’s and women’s races.
In the three years in which he ran here, from 2008 to 2010, a $1m bonus prize was on offer from Dubai Holding for breaking the marathon world record.
Gebrselassie won a hat-trick of titles here and ran what was then the second fastest marathon in history in 2008, yet he never bettered his record. The $1m bonus was part of a three-year deal which has now ended.
Looking at the numbers of entrants in the three years he appeared in Dubai, Gebrselassie clearly stirred greater interest in the race.
In 2007, in the last race pre-Gebrselassie, there were 565 registered runners, which was slightly less than the year before. By 2010, Gebrselassie’s third year, that figure had trebled to 1,700. A similar number are expected at the start line again for Friday’s race.
“Having Haile in Dubai for three straight years was a great boost for the event and certainly helped take us to another level in terms of media and sporting status,” Peter Connerton, the race director, said.
“[But] while a lot of people like to run beside a great name like Haile, I think the majority compete simply because they enjoy it.
“We were always confident the people of Dubai would continue to support the event and the numbers this year – higher than ever before – have shown that to be true.”
Malcolm Murphy, the founder of Dubai Creek Striders, believes the Haile effect has nothing to do with the increase in entrants for the marathon in recent years.
“In my opinion, it hasn’t had an effect at all,” he said. “I think for locally based runners it is purely about the challenge of running a marathon. For example, as a club, we don’t advertise at all.
“The reason it has grown so much is through word of mouth.
“People just want to keep fit and pursue the challenge of finishing a marathon. Every year we have around 30 runners who have never run a marathon before, just from our club.”
Around 130 Dubai Creek Striders will go to the start line for the marathon, which accounts for around eight per cent of the field.
Murphy thinks the increased marathon participation is indicative of a greater interest in fitness generally in the UAE.
He said his club, one of five major running clubs in the Emirates, along with the Mirdif Milers, Abras, Dubai Road Runners and the Abu Dhabi Striders, had a regular core of around 30 runners as recently as three years ago. Now the club’s mailing list extends to more than 500.
“Over the years there has been a growing interest in health and fitness not only in Dubai but all over the world,” Connerton added.
“People are now taking more care of themselves and one of the best ways to do this is to run.
“The marathon may be too far for most people but the 10km and the 3km fun run gives everyone a chance to come together, have a good time and get fit at the same time.”