Interview: Running legend Haile Gebrselassie

The Ethiopian star, who is considered the best-ever by many in the sport but is as humble as they come…

I walked into the London Marathon Expo at the Excel Centre in London a few days before the 2014 edition of the event. At the time, I worked for a sports news agency and had been sent down to complete an interview with Haile Gebrselassie – the legendary Ethiopian runner widely regarded as the greatest his sport had ever seen. I was excited.

As you may have read, I’ve run all my life but at that stage, as a 24-year-old (I think), I’d lost a bit of shape, had been guilty of investing too much time into my media career and had been burning the candle at both ends all too often in the city. Anyway…moving on.

I stood to the side watching his legs turnover very quickly on a treadmill after the PR involved at the event and had asked if he could run a few kilometres to a) offer a bit of a spectacle as well as draw a crowd but b) give the media a helping hand to record some great shots and help put the message out there that the world’s greatest race was only a matter of days away. “Sure, no problem,” the softly spoken legend said when asked to go for a run.

His response shouldn’t have been surprising but it was, or perhaps it was more just a case of how relaxed he was – a couple of years on from his official retirement. Sports people, in my experience, often hate being used as a guinea pig in a spinning wheel.

I’m going off on a slight tangent here but I remember being on the grass lawn at the House of Commons for an event in which Sir Ian Botham, England Cricket’s finest ever all-rounder, was present. He was doing media interviews and one journalist asked him if he could bowl an over in front of the cameras to launch a new grassroots initiative. “The last ball I bowled was in 1993 in my last professional match before retirement, I won’t be bowling another one,” was the gist of his response. Let’s just say it put the journo in his place.

Fortunately, running is a sport where media accessibility tends to be great and egos are unheard of. Back to Haile. At just 5 ft 5 inches, there was nothing of him. This was a man who had broke 27 world track and road records at some stage or another in a distinguished, awe-inspiring career. How was this man quicker than anyone over the 800m and marathon? Astonishing. A man embodying greatness and a brilliant philanthropist helping millions of people back in his homeland.

stuart-appleby-interviewing-haile-gebrselassie

What question do I open with? I eased in with one about his ribbon-cutting to open the Expo and a bit about the race (which is perhaps the classic interview starter) but I had to cover all bases and chat about Mo Farah – who was making his marathon debut four years ago – for the publications in which I was producing content for. I was especially keen though to find out about his drive, what still kept him going after all these years.

His response was short but epic all the same. “Running is in my blood.” Pretty emphatic.

Oh, and I should mention, Gebrselassie was gearing up to be the event’s main pacemaker in London – five days short of his 41st birthday.

“This one will test me,” he tells me with a wry smile. “I like to see how far I am away from the youngsters, how long can I keep pace with them. That’s what motivates me. It’s what keeps me going, keeps me in athletics.”

“What other race are you going to run as good as London?” He has a point.

Our interview was short but sweet, given the demands on his time, but still it’s one of those moments I’ll always remember and to gain a bit of insight from the man itself is something I’ll never take for granted.