In the first of his exclusive columns, Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie says the Olympics can give everyone the power to believe in a better life
It is hard to explain how important the Olympic Games are, and not just to the athletes, but to the whole country. It is more than just a race. The Olympics are what people remember. It gives you the power to believe in something better — it is hope. When, as a child in Ethiopia, I ‘stole’ my family’s radio to listen to the Olympic 10,000 metres final in a field near our house — my father did not allow it to be used for anything but the news and weather — and heard Miruts Yifter win his gold medal in 1980, I knew I wanted to be a great runner.
In some ways, I was much stronger when I was a kid. I could dig a hole for five hours all at once. We had to fill water jugs at the river, which was three miles from the house, and I carried them all the way back. Today, I could never do those things. We were not usually hungry in our house, even though we were a family of 12 to feed, but life was always a fight.
There was no comfort. We would work for 12 hours a day and even then the profits we made from the farm were barely enough to feed ourselves. Running became my escape from the fields.
Running is a part of life for most Ethiopians. I used to run six miles to school and six miles home, unless it was during the rainy season when our bridge would be flooded — then it became 7½ miles each way. But it was so much more than that to me. It wasn’t just useful, it was in my blood. A lot of people ask me if growing up in poverty makes good runners in Ethiopia. It can help, but that is not the only factor. If that were the case for everybody there would be more great runners from other poor countries.
Ethiopians are also hard workers and intelligent trainers, and we live at an altitude. Running provides rhythm to our day and comes as naturally as eating. All of these things are advantages, but I believe that most important of all to be a great athlete is self-belief, discipline, commitment and hard work. I think anyone could be great if they practised those enough.
We have great running role models in Ethiopia — Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Yifter — and Ethiopians have the freedom to dream and to follow them. I think that is maybe a way that poverty helps us run — we imagine a better life, and we can dream about being like them. Every runner in Ethiopia dreams of being an Olympic champion like them.
Running outside of Ethiopia is different. I am now used to the luxuries of competing in Europe and America, but when I first started I was inexperienced. The first time I went on an aeroplane I asked the stewardess to please open a window for some air! Running has opened many doors for me, and for my family. This is something that I am very proud of. We have problems in Ethiopia — we are poor, we have little infrastructure and we lack education. I want to use my resources to try to solve these problems. I want to give Ethiopia all of the advantages that my running has given to my children — food, clothing, comfort and, most of all, a good education.
For some athletes, the London 2012 Olympics will be the third or fourth time they will have appeared on sport’s grandest stage; for others, it will be their first. But for the veterans and novices alike, Friday’s opening ceremony promises to be a huge occasion. For me, nothing beats watching young athletes on the first day of the Games — the ones who will be walking with their teams for the first time, having sweated for four years to earn their place there.
And this year’s event in London will be truly special for me. For the past six years I have mentored 14 young athletes from around the world in the G4S 4teen programme, and five of them will be competing in London representing their countries. I cannot wait to see their faces. They will be competing in a number of different sports, and two of them, Mariana Pajón (BMX, Colombia) and Juan Maegli (sailing, Guatemala), have been nominated to carry the flags of their countries, which is a huge honour for them.
When these athletes come to train with me in Ethiopia on Mount Entoto, where I work everyday, I show them my house, my medals and my businesses around Addis Ababa. We have fun and they are impressed by these things, but at the end of the trip I always tell them, “when you first start competing, you compete only for yourself. When you become successful, you compete for others. You have a responsibility to invest back into your country. That is the only way that it will make itself great”.
Haile Gebrselassie is a mentor to the G4S 4teen programme. He was born on April 18, 1973, at Asella, Ethiopia. He won two Olympic gold medals over 10,000 metres and four World Championship titles. He won the Berlin Marathon four consecutive times and had three straight wins at the Dubai Marathon.