From where he was sitting in the Salle de Mer of Monaco’s Fairmont Hotel last Thursday, Haile Gebrselassie had a view clear over the Mediterranean Sea. But as his gaze fell on that mass of sun-dazzled, shifting water, his vision was of his Ethiopian homeland and what he hoped to do for those athletes following in his illustrious wake.
Since being elected as the President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation last month, the 43-year-old double Olympic 10,000m champion and multiple world record holder has been bringing his unique experience to bear on a domestic situation which – as he readily admitted with that winning smile which launches a set of teeth simply begging to be part of a major toothpaste campaign – is far from perfect.
Problem number one – there has been too much pressure on athletes in past years to live and train in the capital of Addis Ababa in order to be considered for the national team.
Problem number two – despite the world record run which earned Almaz Ayana the Olympic 10,000m gold this summer and saw her named last Friday in Monaco as the International Association of Athletics Federations’ female Athlete of the Year, Ethiopia’s showing at the Rio Games was below par and, crucially, below the level of Kenya’s.
A total of 13 medals (six golds, six silvers, one bronze) gave Kenya second place in the Rio 2016 athletics medal table behind the United States, who won 32 medals (13 gold, 10 silver, nine bronze). Ethiopia was ninth with a total of eight medals – only one gold, through Ayana, two silvers and five bronzes.
“We have to change a lot of things in Ethiopian athletics,” Gebrselassie said as he perched on the edge of a couch alongside Ayana and Rio 1,500m silver medallist Genzebe Dibaba, for whom he was acting as interpreter on behalf of the gathered media.
Regarding problem one, Gebrselassie has announced his intention to decentralise the whole operation to enable athletes to train closer to where they have been brought up.
“Addis has more and more people living in it, it is a big city and you can’t train there like before,” he said.
On top of that, most of the athletes come from outside, in the countryside. When I have been in Addis recently, I have noticed that the pollution is increasing steadily.
“We have to train more like the Kenyan system. In Kenya the athletes don’t live in Nairobi, they are based at Iten or Eldoret,” the two-time men’s 10,000m Olympic gold medallist continued.
“I want us to be able to open different training camps in different regions. The question is – how can we build enough tracks? It’s not cheap to build a track. You have to pay a lot of money.
“It may take three or four years, but slowly we have to put a small track in each training camp.”
Half an hour earlier, Kenya’s world 800m record holder and double Olympic champion David Rudisha had sat on the same couch and, despite acknowledging the serious problems Kenyan athletes have had recently with key officials, waxed enthusiastically about the benefits of allowing athletes to train close to their homes rather than having to travel into the capital of Nairobi.
“Now at Eldoret, we have one of the best tracks for training,” said Rudisha, whose English has become as elegant as his running. “We can train near to where we live any time we want without inconvenience.
“This year for the first time we held the Olympic trials in Eldoret. It was totally packed, because almost 80 per cent of the athletes live nearby. It was such a wonderful atmosphere and people really appreciated that.
“People there can see the sport and then just walk back to where they live. It is so important to have such kind of facilities more in the country – and it boosts the morale of the up-and-coming youngsters.
On the subject of the second Ethiopian athletics concern, Gebrselassie accepted: “The results in Rio especially were not what we were expecting.”
His favourite race was his victory in the 10,000m final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – in which he sprinted the length of the finishing straight with Kenya’s Paul Tergat before earning gold by a margin of nine hundredths of a second – less than Maurice Greene’s winning margin over Ato Boldon in the men’s 100m. It was the quintessential expression of Ethiopian and Kenyan track rivalry.
“People say to me ‘you say Tergat was your friend, but you never allow him to win’. Sometimes you feel guilty about that.
“But the rivalry between Kenya and Ethiopia is a beautiful thing. Without Ethiopia, no Kenya; without Kenya, no Ethiopia. We need each other.
“And our relationship outside athletics is wonderful. If there is one country we have no problem with that is Kenya, since about 1000 years ago. Of course over the years we have problems with different countries, but I like that it is only sport fighting between us and Kenya.
“It’s like the soccer rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. In Ethiopia and Kenya we live in the same style, the same area. We are the same in the food we eat, we share a culture. If you go to the south of Ethiopia, the north of Kenya, you don’t see any difference. You don’t notice a border.
“Now the Kenyans are more successful than us on the track. It used to be Ethiopia five or ten years ago. Ethiopia was better. Now we need to catch up again.
“For Kenya to stay too long at the top – it doesn’t make sense. We need each other, otherwise there’s no competition. Believe it or not, the reason I broke so many records was because of the Kenyans. I break the record, a year later they break it, so I have to break it again.”