POSTED: September 20th 2010
NEIL WILSON: Hail the Emperor who still numbers his subjects in millions
THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications
LONDON, Sep 21: Hard to believe but the people who claim to know about these things say that they estimate that 11m people in Ethiopia were watching when around 50,000 runners made their way from Newcastle to South Shields last Sunday.
The Great North Run was transmitted live for the first time to East Africa.That running-crazy country was not interested in the clowns and the Batmen and the thousands running for their favourite charity but in one man, the man they call The Emperor, their very own Haile Gebrselassie. He is their Pied Piper.
When Gebrselassie’s own company organised a version of the Great North Run in Addis Ababa in association with Brendan Foster’s Tyneside company, 33,000 started the first year, 35,000 the second.They are planning for 40,000 the third year.
Gebrselassie has made running a career-option in his desperately-poor country. Thousands can be found running every day through the streets of its capital. So strong is the talent among them that foreign agents have funded training squads of up to 100 in the countryside from which they hope to find a few more gems like Haile.
“There are many great runners now that I don’t even know all their names. I saw a race won by one in a European meeting this year and I didn’t know him. He wouldn’t have made the top ten in Ethiopia but here he was winning a top European race,” said Gebrselassie.
He has no intention yet of moving over to allow one of them to assume his crown. Victory in the Great North Run was a warm-up for the New York Marathon in November, his 15th at the distance, and distant preparation for the marathon in the 2012 Olympic Games in London in his 40th year.
“It will not be easy but I will try my best,” he said.
Foster, who knows a thing or two himself about great
distance running, made a presentation to him acknowledging him as the greatest ever.
It wasn’t just the spin of a grateful race organiser. Two Olympic gold medals at 10,000 metres, eight world titles at distances from 1500 to half marathon and 26 world records from 2000metres to marathon in an international career spanning 18 years backs Foster’s case.
There can also be no disputing his effect on his native country. No athlete in history has put so much back into the land that gave him birth.
Not only has he generated a running boom but used his earnings from his running to create construction companies, build two schools, a cinema, fitness centre and this year he opened his first hotel, the lake-side Haile Resort. He does, he says, not to make himself richer still – “I have enough”, he told me – but to create wealth for his country.
He employs hundreds. And he has no intention of hanging up those running shoes. “I never tire of winning, no way,” he said.
NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.
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