x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The racing machine

Running 10km to school every day helped shape the Ethiopian distance great.

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AD200810492541554AR

Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Ahmed Rizvi looks at the runner Haile Gebrselassie.

In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa there is a mural of Haile Gebrselassie on a high-rise building that overlooks the National Stadium. It has two simple words inscribed on it: You Can. There could be no better ode to a man who has risen from very humble beginnings into one of the greatest in the world of sports. He is a part of Ethiopian and distance running folklore, and a symbol of hope. Gebrselassie was one of 10 siblings growing up on a maize and rice farm in rural Ethiopia.

They lived in a modest one-room dwelling, covered with straw and plastered with mud. The nearest source of water was a river nearly 4km away and there was no electricity. The closest school was 10km away and Gebrselassie, who lost his mother when he was seven, had to run to get there and back, in sun and rain, through forests and hills, across rivers and muddy roads. If his school had been closer, would there be a Gebrselassie as we know him today?

Had his childhood been a bit more comfortable, would he have been among the greats in history? Gebrselassie, himself, believes his tough start in life shaped his winning personality "When you come from that kind of life, you are successful. It was perfect preparation," he says. "I was a very aggressive boy. When they asked me to go somewhere, I didn't like to walk, just run - I liked to do things faster.

"I did things before everybody else, especially when I was young. I always wanted to be the best." This innate desire to excel has seen Haile shatter 25 world records in a celebrated career that shows no sign of abating. After winning 11 Olympic, World Championship and World Indoor Championship titles, he decided to move to marathons and broke the world mark with a time of 2:04:26 in Berlin last September.

Earlier this year he won the Dubai Marathon in 2:04:53, the second fastest time in history. He has broken the world 5,000m record on four occasions and the 10,000m three times. In 1999 and 2000 he was undefeated in all his races, which ranged from the 1500m to the 10,000m. In 1993, at the World Championship in Stuttgart, Haile won the first of his four consecutive 10,000m World Championships titles. In 1994, he set his first world record with a run of 12:56.96 in the 5,000m, shaving two seconds off Said Aoutia's mark.

He lowered the 10,000m record by nine seconds in 1995, and reclaimed the 5,000m record in a manner that stunned the world. He blew away Moses Kiptanui's record of 12:55.30 with a staggering 12:44.39 - almost 11 seconds quicker. "I knew I was in good shape ? I was really flying," he says. "But to break the mark by such a big gap - that was unforgettable." That "unforgettable" moment was, however, to be surpassed when Haile defended his 10,000m crown at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. That victory remains the defining moment of his career.

He had been badly injured a few months before the start of the Games and he arrived in Australia with little preparation. "Everyone was expecting me not to run because of my Achilles problem. I was close to not competing, but when I got there I thought I might as well fight for it," he says. And the fight he put up is the stuff of legends. He was up against his arch-rival, the Kenyan Paul Tergat, who had finished second to the Ethiopian four years earlier in Atlanta.

The men were neck-and-neck with less than a lap to go. With 300m to run, Tergat shot away. "When he went past me on the home straight. I thought he had won the gold," says Gebrselassie. "I thought that was it. But I decided I had to try to just track him to make it as hard as possible for him. I did not think I could win." He did win it though, edging ahead in the final strides to snatch an unbelievable win. The margin of victory was just 0.09secs, closer than the winning margin in the men's 100 metre final.

That victory pushed him into the echelon of greats, alongside the Finnish legend Paavo Nurmi and the Czech Emil Zatopek. Nurmi has won nine Olympic gold medals, while Zatopek has four Olympic titles against his name, including the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon treble at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Yet people like Sebastian Coe, the British middle-distance great, rank Haile ahead of these immortals. "Comparisons will be made with Emil Zatopek and Paavo Nurmi, but Haile is the most talented of them all by a distance," he says.

"What makes him talented is that he has the leg speed of a very good 1500m runner. "He also has the great ability to destroy the field with a change of pace over five strides, and that is what he has done time and time again. He has struck like a cobra, got that gap and he has the physical and mental strength. That is what has made him different from anything that has gone before. "I see Haile and I know he can be a perfectly nice man, very open, friendly and social. But he also has the mentality, when it matters, of a killer. He is the consummate racing machine."

Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Gebrselassie is the all-time best, text G20 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday September 4. @Email:arizvi@thenational.ae