Once upon a time, there was a poor little boy named Haile Gebrselassie in Asella, a village in Ethiopia’s dusty south. One of 10 children, he watched his father farm wheat and maize and tend to his cows and sheep. Poverty was the only constant in their life. School was 10 kilometers away, and every day, the young boy would run to his classes and back, covering the distance in minutes. Those were baby steps to global fame.
Years later, he would become Ethiopia’s most famous man entering record books as the world’s greatest distance runner.
It all began when one day, on his father’s radio, a seven-year-old Gebrselassie heard of Miruts Yifter, the Ethiopian runner who won two golds at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. That made him decide his own course in life – he too would become a runner. The green countryside and rugged mountains of his hometown became his inimitable training ground.
While in high school, a 14-year-old Gebrselassie pleaded with his teachers to compete in the local marathon. He was the youngest in the competition, but was at least 60 meters ahead of the rest when he eventually won. The prize was a dollar – a princely sum. Overnight, he became school hero.
And in time, Ethiopia’s hero, winning two Olympic golds and eight World Championships, and setting 27 world records. The golds were for Atlanta in 1996 and for Sydney in 2000, when he competed with Kenyan Paul Tergat in an epic finish.
Many still remember the rapturous reception when he landed in Addis Ababa from Sydney; thousands thronged the streets all the way from the airport, hailing him like a king. To this day, he is known as the ‘Emperor of Long Distance’.
It’s March 2015, two months before announcing his retirement from competitive running, when FORBES AFRICA meets him for the first time.
Gebrselassie is seated on a pale leather sofa in a dapper suit, sporting a winning smile that people say is his greatest asset. He is undeniably affable. His office is on the eighth floor of the Haile & Alem International building on the arterial Bole Road in Addis Ababa. There is raucous traffic below and the city is a giant construction site – new buildings coming up on either side of the road, and with them, swirling columns of dust.
The building we are in was constructed by Gebrselassie, all nine floors of it, now let out to other offices. Every business he owns has his indelible stamp: the Haile Gabrselassie Avenue in Addis Ababa (he has a road in his name) has another one of his iconic office buildings, so designed as to inconspicuously bear the letters H&A on its face (A for Alem, his wife and business partner). He owns resorts in and en route to Awasa, about four hours by road from Addis Ababa, all of them five-star and named Haile.
It’s hot and Gebrselassie rues Ethiopia is not getting enough rain.
“I am the son of a farmer, I know this is not good,” he says.
He has a 1,500-hectare organic coffee farm in Ethiopia’s south, and he fears the land will be too dry.
Talk of his farm and village evokes memories of his childhood, and that first overseas trip to Belgium from there.
“In 1991, there was a cross-country race here in Addis and I finished fifth. That year, the top six finalists were taken to Belgium for the international competition. I finished eighth but I can never forget my first international trip,” smiles Gebrselassie.
The following year, he flew again, this time to Seoul in South Korea, where he won the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter championships. The prize was a C180 Mercedes-Benz. He also won another C180 Mercedes-Benz in 1995. He says they are both proudly displayed at his resort in Awasa.
In the 2013 book Haile Gebrselassie: Emperor of Long Distance, he recounts that emotional moment when he won gold for the first time at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“…I had no worries about the sprint. I kicked with 200 meters and crossed the line with a new Olympic record of 27:07.34. My dream came true. Many things crossed my mind when I stood on top of the podium – pressure from Ethiopians, my promise to Alem, the hopes of the family… As soon as the national anthem started, I began to cry. It’s the only time I’ve cried on the podium.”
“I have run for more than 300 competitions so far. I have run for 27 years. But now, it is a different kind of running,” smiles Gebrselassie, referring to his multiple business interests in real estate, hospitality, imported cars, coffee and cineplexes.
“But I don’t think I am an entrepreneur, I am trying,” he says modestly.
He never expected his businesses to grow the way they have.
“I have built office blocks, shops, resorts, cinemas, gyms and schools,” he says.
Since 2014, he has also tried his luck at gold mining, working on exploration in Ethiopia’s southeast.
“Our geologists are working very hard. And we are investing a lot, a lot of money. We have found gold, but production will not be [now],” he says.
He has enough of the gleaming metal in his trophy cabinet too. How many gold medals, we ask.
“That is a good question. I didn’t count them, but could be more than 200. From 1992, until 2008, I have run an average of 15 competitions a year. That is a lot, [enough] to have run at least two times around the world,” laughs Gebrselassie.
The marathon man appears pensive before he speaks again.
“Because I travel a lot, I always think of how to improve my country. For example, if I walk in London, I would look around and wish we had those buildings in Ethiopia. And when I [have] the money, I would come back, and want to build. One building would lead to another.”
His drawing board includes a five-star hotel in Addis Ababa, named Haile, of course. Gebrselassie introduced local cinema to the city. His cineplexes currently showcase Ethiopian films to packed houses. He has even tried his hand at acting. In 1999, he starred as himself in the film Endurance, screened at his cinema house.
The film didn’t do well.
“It was not appreciated,” smiles Gebrselassie. “But the next film we screened was a love story [he was not in it], and that’s when the people came.”
Every November, Gebrselassie organizes the Great Ethiopian Run, commencing from Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square. The turnout in 2014 was 40,000 and growing each year; it’s a resounding success on the continent’s marathon map. In addition, in 2015, he was also part of the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town.
“Actually, my business [philosophy] is like this: there is business for money and business for satisfaction. I opened a school in the village I was born in and another school in west Ethiopia. The fees are minimal and I didn’t open them for profit… If you ask me how much my businesses are worth, it’s not only the property, it’s the people too. I work hard and I don’t see how much I have. I am happy,” says Gebrselassie.
He wants to make sure he’s setting the right example for the upcoming generation of athletes.
“Most runners or sportspeople; how many of them invest in business?” he asks. “I haven’t seen anyone invest money this way. And I know many sportsmen around the world. For me, the chances I have given my people, is worth more than a billion dollars. Most of the younger athletes [now] invest here. They say ‘Haile has inspired us’. To copy is not difficult, but to create something is hard. My farms, hotels and buildings give job opportunities for others. All the money has been from athletics. If you want to see a true billionaire, in terms of money, come back in five years. Don’t ask me how much money I have in currency, but the goodwill [I enjoy] is priceless.”
And who did he look up to for inspiration? “If you ask me who the world’s best long-distance runner is, I would say it is Nelson Mandela. If you have to be a runner, you have to be patient. After 27 years in prison, he forgave [his captors].” Gebrselassie met Mandela in South Africa in 1996 at a world cross-country event and they shook hands.
Addis Ababa being a small city, word, good or bad, gets around. It’s easy to see Gebrselassie is well-respected in the business community.
“He is not just an athlete, he is a smart businessman. What I like about him is he developed himself, is self-made,” says Tihitina Tutu Legesse, one of Addis Ababa’s top entrepreneurs in the furniture business.
On May 10 last year, the two-time 10,000-meter Olympic champion announced his retirement from competitive running. He ran his way to fortune, and there are now rumors that his next turn will be in politics, and that he will be running for parliament in Ethiopia in 2020. He told the BBC in an interview in February this year that he would like to be a politician.
“I think he is very brave. I really admire his strategy,” says Saba Kahsay, the Managing Director of REVO Construction in Addis Ababa. “He knows which fights to pick in terms of business. He has a very strong advisory committee. He does not do everything by himself. He has people doing it for him. He is not just a businessman but also a community man.”
Gebrselassie is expected to be at the Olympic Games in Rio in August where he will be television commentator.
But he is not packing away his running shorts, even though he has changed track to the boardroom. His sprawling hilltop home, where the 43-year-old lives with his wife and four children, overlooks the city. He wakes up before dawn every day to run on the hills of Entoto and their verdant paths. He cannot do without it; he says running is his life.