Haile Gebreselassie: Politics and Retirement
By Eskinder Nega | November 12, 2010

Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, in yellow, runs with the men's leaders during the New York City Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010, in New York. Gebrselassie dropped out at the 16-mile mark with an injury to his right knee (AP)
The first time Haile Gebreselassie burst onto the world-title scene was seventeen years ago, somewhere in mid-'93. Success landed him in the spotlight, and commentators were soon noting what they said (alluding to other Ethiopian athletes as well) was a discrepancy between how old he looked and his officially declared age -- twenty years. Haile’s response at this stage, when he hardly spoke a word of English, was to simply flash his infectiously winning smile at his detractors. No one yet suspected that in the delicate and diminutive physical bearing of Haile lurked an extraordinary persona that will go on to attain the peak heights of the world’s greatest athletes.

He endured on the world stage for an unprecedented decade and a half; winning Olympic medals and setting a bunch of world records in events spanning from 1500 meters to his personal favorites, the 5000 and 10,000 meters; and to cap it all, in what was supposed to have been the twilight of his career, in that ultimate barometer of stamina, the marathon -- for which he still holds the world record time of 2:03:59. (He is the only person on record to have breached the 2:04 barrier.)

The transformation of his personality is no less spectacular. He is effortlessly telegenic. He has always been at perfect ease, with absolutely no trace of self-consciousness, even when multitudes of cameras are focused on him. His quick mastery of the essentials of the English language is testament to his keen intelligence. His symmetry with journalists is the stuff of legends. He does not merely respond to their queries, he converses with them as he would with his long-time friends. His unforced sense of intimacy was also to win millions of hearts around the world. Even his fierce competitors, the Kenyans, could hardly resist his charms.

His transition from rural Ethiopia to the fast-track world of international superstars was perfectly seamless. There was no philandering before finally settling down; no burn-outs from excessive partying; no spend free phases from the avalanche of earnings. He wed his sweetheart early in his success, and went on to shrewdly invest his earnings in extensive business interests -- which now include a car dealership (an increasingly lucrative sector); a cinema (which shows only Ethiopian films); real estate (whose value has tripled); and a widely acclaimed resort (where Birtukan Mideksa, an opposition leader who had spent most of the past five years behind bars, and whose release he helped secure, was his VIP guest along with her daughter and mother.)

Haile seemed incapable of doing wrong. But despite an acclaimed moderation in taste and life-style, his ambition was expanding in private. That was to become all too evident when out-of- the blue, and to the particular surprise of Ethiopians, who know him best, he announced his ambition to ascend to the nation’s Presidency. This was not a humble call to serve in the public arena, which would not have surprised anyone, but a sudden and unexplained reach to an exalted position, which surprised everyone.

How and why did this transformation take place?

Perhaps, only Haile could answer this question with certainty. What is obvious, though, is the changed tempo with which his feeler in to politics was received in Ethiopia. While his sensational claim was to receive reasonable play in the international press, it was noted for its oddity by Ethiopians, and then offhandedly dismissed and ignored. Neither opposition groups nor the ruling party expressed serious interest. Meles shrugged it off: “It’s his right,” he said, and moved on.

No doubt this was not the reaction Haile was expecting. By the time he uttered those words, he had long become unused to being ignored. But evidently, the world saw in him no more than an inspiring athlete. He, on the other hand, had taken himself far more seriously and wanted the world to acknowledge him for that. This was palpably turning into an uphill battle. And Haile, living embodiment that he is of the triumph of the mind over body, is barely a quitter. After all, only a patient man could conquer the marathon.

By September 2010 Ethiopia’s politics has seemingly (which is really illusory, by the way) irretrievably turned in favor of the ruling party, the EPRDF. Thus it was more than sheer coincidence that Haile should choose this time to appear at a nationally broadcast Congress of the EPRDF (convention, in the American parlance) and express his sympathies (but circumspectly not explicit support, since this would complicate his ambition. The law stipulates that the President must be a non-party member.)

Haile’s calculation is only too plain. With the obvious implosion of the opposition, the only plausible way to the Presidency, at least in the short run, seems to be through the EPRDF. And apparently, the way to the EPRDF lies through Meles Zenawi. All this is clear within the standard perceptive powers of the average Ethiopian.

And if Haile had maneuvered with an acceptable parameter to fulfill his ambition, he would have been tolerated by the public. But in the court of public opinion, he recklessly -- and uncharacteristically -- strayed too far when he in effect publicly submitted to the unpopular Meles Zenawi by giving him a highly prized personal gift in the full glare of national television. The nation watched with total shock.(The horrific death of hundreds of unarmed protesters from shots to the head and heart by government sharpshooters is still fresh in the public’s mind.)

A week later, one of Addis’ weeklies, Feteh, queried him about the gift.

“You have awarded PM Meles Zenawi a T-shirt in which you set a world record. Which of his feats earned him this honor?” asked Feteh.

His response was defensive and muddled.

“He (Meles) deserves it. He deserves it for the (achievements) I see. I have given my T–shirts and shorts to other people, too. I must have been waiting for this moment not to have done it to date. If we do not honor our fellow citizens, who will pay tribute to them for us? Let me tell you one thing; we may say many things about the PM in our country, but he is respected like a champion athlete abroad. At G-8 and G-20 meetings, he is bestowed with great respect. Besides, the Bible instructs us to obey our kings,” said Haile of Meles Zenawi, whose party swept 99.6 % of parliamentary seats in an election “that did not meet international standards,” according to European Union election observers.

The fierce public backlash was more than Haile had ever expected in his wildest imagination (as he was to later confess to some people.) And he was suddenly confronted with a new phenomenon: the swift fall from public grace. And he did not know how to handle it. He was embarrassed as well as confused. This is the beleaguered Haile Gebreselassie that limped out of the New York Marathon and emotionally declared his retirement to a shocked world.

Haile is ailing. There is the MRI that shows fluid and tendints in his knee joints. No one is disputing that much. It is, however, in the words of the BBC, “the-spur-of-the-moment” announcement of retirement that has baffled the world. Only last month, he spoke passionately against retiring in an interview with AP. “Why should I retire? Why should I say I will retire in three four years? I still think about doing more,” had said Haile.

When he changed his mind, he gave no time to ponder, to consult with family, friends and business associates -- it was a spur of the moment decision. So unlike the old moderate Haile. So like the new controversially Meles-admiring Haile.

Haile did not only suffer from physical ailment in New York. Unseen to the world, but visible to those close to him, he is also ailing emotionally.This explains the erratic decision that has become the subject of the international press. The path to his physical recuperation -- if it is indeed possible -- is intractably tied to his emotional well-being.

But for his emotional redemption, he must first be convinced that nothing is worth his good conscience -- yes, even the Presidency !

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com

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