The former Olympic gold medallist talks about his businesses, passions, and why his may have been the last great generation of Ethiopian long-distance runners
The trouble with retirement is you never get a day off, basketball coach Abe Lemons once said. Haile Gebrselassie may agree.
The former long-distance runner, who once ran a 42km marathon in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 59 seconds, now often finds himself short of time.
Time was at a premium even when the Ethiopian was invited to Mumbai on 1 August for the launch of the 15th Tata Mumbai Marathon, which will be held in January. He arrived early in the morning from Addis Ababa, rested for a while and then attended meetings with the marathon organizers, Procam International. This was followed by a few media interactions, some photo shoots and an evening launch event, before he flew back the next morning.
Perhaps by design, or perhaps owing to this packed schedule, Gebrselassie stayed in his blue T-shirt, grey tracksuit and running sneakers throughout, even when he sat with the suits at the launch event. On stage, he struck some running poses while grinning widely and showing that he is comfortable wearing multiple hats.
Since his retirement two years ago, the 44-year-old has focused on his burgeoning businesses—they are so many, and so varied, that he has no simple explanation for them. Some are passion projects, others commercial, and a few, altruistic.
The long-distance turned marathon runner who set more than 20 world records and won two Olympic gold medals (in the 10,000m in 1996 and 2000) first started a real estate business. Now he has hotels (and resorts), car dealerships with Hyundai, coffee plantations, a cinema hall and schools, besides being the president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation—and the most famous man in the country.
“Am I?" he asks, seated by the window at the business centre of the Trident hotel in Nariman Point, Mumbai. “I think people know Haile Gebrselassie well. Does it help in work? Yes. Sometimes, when I sell things, people trust me. There is an advantage and disadvantage—a single mistake can damage or destroy you."
The entrepreneur’s average day starts with a run at 5 in the morning. He still runs about 15km a day in 70-80 minutes. His house, just outside of Addis Ababa, is surrounded by hills, his escape from the city. He is in office by 8, and spends the evenings training young athletes.
While the Haile Hotels and Resorts’ four properties (all in Ethiopia) are extensions of his real estate business, Gebrselassie has also bought 1,500 hectares of a coffee farm south of Addis Ababa, just for the love of the brew. “My coffee farm is huge. You test my coffee; it’s the best," he says.
The coffee plantation is currently his first love, employing about 600 of the roughly 2,000 people who work for Haile and Alem International Plc, the holding company. In two-three years, they will produce about 400-500 tonnes of coffee a year, he says.
“We (in Ethiopia) make good coffee because of the area, the altitude. We are 1,500-1,800m above sea level, which is perfect. Don’t forget, the best coffee (in the world) is in Ethiopia. Most farmers grow organic coffee, like I do," says Gebrselassie, who still holds the second-fastest time in the 5,000m—12:39.36.
The other passion project is Alem, a cinema hall that gets its name from his wife’s name. He started it as a hobby because he liked movies. “When I was a boy," he says, “I always went to watch Indian movies. In old times, under the Communist system, it was forbidden to watch Western movies. Only Indian and Chinese were shown."
“So when I come here (he visited India in 2015 as well for the marathon), I feel this is my culture. I show local movies in Alem; you have Bollywood, we have Ethiopianwood."
Gebrselassie believes that his might have been the last great generation of Ethiopian long-distance runners. “The natural gift, no one can give you…it comes from childhood. It is not related to genes…for instance, my children are driven around everywhere and don’t even carry their own bags, how can they become runners?
“Nowadays, athletes complain about shoes and diet—every food they have to check what’s inside: Is it rich in carbs, protein?
“I never thought about the food I ate. I ran till I collapsed, these athletes don’t even get injured because they are so careful," says Gebrselassie, rolling up his track pants to show the scars from injuries and surgeries.