He crisscrosses the tables, greeting each of the guests at his front yard flashing his trademark smile as he served us drinks.
“Welcome! Welcome feel free, today is just to eat and dance till morning,” he teased at the after party he hosted for tens of his friends, guests at his palatial mansion in Addis Ababa after the 2014 Great Ethiopian run earlier in the day.
Clad in a blue tracksuit emblazoned with the recognizable Adidas stripes, Gebrselassie, one of the most important icons in the history of long distance running, was enjoying the role of a gracious host as the guests dined on food from his resort.
There are few men who could match his consistency on track and the course, and at 41 he has carried on his passion, still pounding city roads with same tenacity albeit slackened pace.
His accruing business interests have largely kept him off running as often as he would wish, but the Ethiopian who has held world records from 2000m indoors to the marathon, and won two 10 000m Olympic gold medals, shows no signs of slowing down.
“Running is still there. I can’t stop running not yet. It’s always there. It’s a part of my life. I stop running, I die,” he said. He is preparing for a 10k race in Singapore on December 7. “After that I will see, for now my focus is mainly on my business. I will certainly be in Rio but not running but promoting events for my sponsor Adidas. I have lost the discipline now,” he admitted answering my unasked question as he wiped a sweat from his brow from the vigorous Ethiopian folk Eskesta dancing at the party.
Done with the marathon
“For now am done with running for team Ethiopia, these youngsters …oomph..They don’t give you a chance,” he added shaking his head, calmed to lay the Olympic marathon ghosts to rest.
Gebrselassie had hoped to compete in his fifth Olympics in London but he failed to qualify when Ethiopia selected its team at the Blankers-Koen Games in Hengelo, an occasional failure in an exceptional career.
“One thing I wanted to win was the Olympic marathon. London was a chance but I missed…”
The marathon is a race he mastered. With sheer class, he won the Berlin marathon four times before becoming the first man to run a sub 2:03 of 2:59.28 in 2008.
Fast marathons. Over the last three years, more than a minute has been slashed off his world record mark.
“Things are moving very fast, maybe in 15 years we can see a sub 2 hours. It is not so far off but not just yet. Sub 2 is not an easy task,” he said disproving pundits who feel the mark could be lowered in the next two seasons.
For Gebrselassie it will take time, a gradual progression just slightly less than the period it took to slash 10 minutes from his compatriot Abebe Bikila’s record run in Rome in 1960.
Doping: pressure to win, break records
It is not lost on him that the pressure to run faster could be stretching the runners and adversely affect the sport.
“Many Kenyans and Ethiopian athletes work very hard. But there is also the pressure now to break records in the road races, in the marathon, they can be tempted to dope. We must eliminate and avoid that (doping) to win medals and break records!” he reasoned unconsciously scanning through the massive cabinets in his spacious and tastefully furnished living room, packed with medals.
His most prized, the Athens and Sydney Olympics gold are missing, he donated them to the St Mary Orthodox church in Entoto, which is close to his preferred training base. “The Sydney one, it was special.To date it brings me tears,” he said as he paused a moment reflecting back on the epic 10 000m final, a race that highlighted his track brilliance.
“That was not just a race, till today am still asking myself did I win that race? If you look at that race which I still do watch again and again, Paul (Tergat) had already won this race… Paul already won….” His voice trailed off into a whisper but the thought couldn’t keep a radiant smile from his lips.
The Kenyan runner, already retired was perhaps his biggest track rival but also brought the best out of him, a relentless focus to win.
An instinctive talent inspired by the double 1980 Olympic champion compatriot Miruts Yifter whose performances that gripped him for most of his school years.
“In 1980 when Yifter won Moscow the 5 and 10 000, I wanted to be like him. I dreamt of being number one. I wanted to be number one and I kept on telling myself this and drumming it in my head and finally it happened.”
It is the same drive that has seen the father of daughters Eden, 16, Melat, 14, and Bethlem, 12, and nine-year-old son Nathan, establish a business empire from the bottom up, with his wife ‘Prime Minister’ Alem.
“You know for me I didn’t school much, I ran more. That’s why am lucky to have her, well-educated running my business. The Prime Minister,” he said patting his wife, Alem’s knee, as he expounded on his multimillion-dollar business. “
About 1500 people work in my companies. I am into Real Estate, I have schools, Hotel business; farming, I have 1500 acres and very soon we shall start exporting organic coffee and we also import cars.
Recently we started gold mining where we are at the exploration stage. I want to have more gold not any more from running but from the ground.”
Political ambitions on hold
Ambitious business plans that have forced him to again put on hold his desire to run for a Parliamentary seat at next year’s national elections and eventually ascend to the country’s presidential seat.
The Ethiopian president is head of the state with an all-powerful Prime Minister who runs government business.
“I had planned to run the 2015 parliamentary election but I still have a lot more to do in the businesses. I shall be ready in 2020, for me impossible is nothing…President? Why not?’ he posed.
“Everything I do people are watching,” he sought to explain further his political deferment. The distress of 2010 still very fresh in his mind when he limped out of the New York marathon, a decision he quickly rescinded, that had crushed thousands of Ethiopians hearts.
“When I am smiling it has to be from inside, I love that. I like the feeling of my people, when am happy they are happy, when I cry, they cry,” a man admired and respected widely not only for his talent but also for his humility and gentleness.