Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ethiopia needs you Haile Gebrselassie, so does the London 2012 Olympics

By Ian Chadband

“His smile makes athletics smile,” Haile Gebrselassie’s manager Jos Hermens once told me.

The memory of this perfect observation flickered again on Sunday when it felt impossible not to harbour a twinge of sorrow about the great man’s unhappy, emotional announcement, after pulling out during the New York marathon, that he was retiring from competitive running with immediate effect. It wasn’t just Haile’s smile which had just evaporated.

It was not just that it seemed hard to imagine no longer charting an unparalleled sporting career which I had been privileged to watch and chronicle for 17 years since marvelling at this freakish little Ethiopian kid seemingly bouncing on his toes like a sprinter for 25 laps to win his first world 10,000m title in Stuttgart.

No, it was more than that; it actually felt like an empty day for the sport itself, like the loss of a constant shaft of sunshine in a landscape which has become so disfigured by doubt and cynicism. Athletics can ill afford to lose both purity and pure genius.

It did not seem right to hear that the greatest of athletes had limped away forlornly on New York’s Queensboro Bridge and then punished himself with tears of recrimination in a press conference room. This was no way to go.

Sport is mercilessly unsentimental about things like that, you can shrug. It rarely offers dream goodbyes for dream athletes. Yet Gebrselassie deserves so much better than this anti-climactic ending and, after Sunday’s initial shock, I am happy to still be persuaded that he will change his mind about retirement and that a rather more fitting bow may yet still await him in London 2012.

If his closest advisors, like Hermens, are right in believing that the 37-year-old was simply acting on distressed impulse on Sunday, so crushed was he by having to succumb to a knee problem after his hardest pre-race preparations for years, and that he could yet have a change of heart, then why shouldn’t London be back on the agenda?

Gebrselassie has always acted from the heart and is incredibly hard on himself. He has had to pull out before or during several big races, through injuries and illness, in the past few years and each time he has sounded guilty, clearly hating the idea that he was somehow letting people down. New York was the final straw.

Only the good news is that there have been previous ‘final straws’. It is hard not to forget how crestfallen he seemed after struggling home ninth in his first crack at the London Marathon. He was going to quit then too but within two years was world record holder.

This year alone, admittedly betwixt more injury setbacks, he has won the Dubai Marathon in a hardly sluggish 2hr 6min 9sec and clocked his best half-marathon time for two years in winning the Great North Run. So it was little wonder that even in the week’s build-up to New York, he had been reiterating his ambition to run for a third gold medal, following his two 10,000m triumphs in Atlanta and Sydney, in London.

Yes, of course even should he now go back on Sunday’s announcement, the odds must be very long on Gebrselassie winning gold in London. Yet since he still rues his decision to withdraw from the Beijing Olympic marathon – as an asthmatic, his fears that the pollution there would be too oppressive proved unfounded and he ended up breaking the world record in Berlin soon after – he must not leave his matchless career with one final regret

For even if he did not win, he would give himself the unmissable chance, in front of thousands of cheering supporters on the capital’s streets, to cross the line (whether it be in front of Buckingham Palace or, as I earnestly still hope, the Olympic Stadium itself) to a reception befitting one of the great Olympians.

On Tuesday he tweeted to the world (funny how Twitter seems to be the only repository left for brief, honest reflections from celebrities) that “now it is time for me to think about a lot of things. I still love running. I will always run. Just give me some time to think things over.”

Of course, we will, Haile. Just think it over and then tell us it is not over quite yet. Your country needs you, London needs you and your sport needs you. Just one more for the Olympic road…