Haile's big heart

Haile Gebrselassie has won a bag full of Olympic medals and broken an incredible 27 world records on his way to international stardom.

It is no wonder that his arrival, even in Kenya—a country that boasts a rich history of long-distance running—is greeted with acclaim.

The East African country may be renowned for its consistency in producing some of the world’s best long-distance and road-running athletes—such as Paul Tergat, Wilson Kipketer and Ishmael Kirui—but still there is no doubting the respect the Kenyans have for one of Africa’s finest sporting icons.

Gebrselassie was in Nairobi this week to conduct coaching clinics at the G4S 4teen Regional Training Camp for four young African athletes striving to emulate him. They are looking to become world champions in the near future and Olympic medallists at the London 2012 Games.

Sponsored by security company G4S, Gebrselassie spent a week with South African under-17 table tennis champion Zodwa Maphanga, Kenya’s long-distance runner Pauline Korikwiang and sprinters Obinna Metu of Nigeria and Fanuel Kenosi (Botswana), taking them through the rigours of preparing for major competitions.

It is hardly surprising that G4S chose this man from a family of 10 children as its ambassador for this ambitious project to develop young athletes around the globe.
The Ethiopian star’s humble nature and passion for giving back to the sport are, perhaps, the most striking attributes that embody his legendary achievements.

Sitting across a table from him and talking sport leaves a lasting impression about the man behind this phenomenal greatness. Besides being humble he is polite and has an infectious smile that immediately breaks the ice.

‘I enjoy imparting whatever I have learned to the younger generation. As it is, I run a school with 2 000 athletes back home and feel duty-bound to work with these gifted young athletes as they need a role model to help them realise their goals,” he says.

All sporting goals are alike he believes, which makes it easy for him to work with young athletes pursuing different codes. ‘The training methods may differ, but sportpersons have the same unifying desire to win. I may not be able to tell a sprinter the best starting technique, but principles, such as quality management, hard work and discipline, are applicable to every athlete.”

It is this wise counsel and the inspiration of having Gebrselassie as a mentor and friend that should enable Maphanga, the table tennis player from Tshwane, to contribute to South Africa’s Olympic effort in 2012.

Team South Africa performed dismally at the Beijing Olympics last year, returning home with just one silver medal—Kgotso Mokoena’s second-place finish in the long jump—pitiful for a country that was represented in just about every event.

Gebrselassie urged Team South Africa to look beyond mere numbers and facilities if they are to achieve success.

‘South Africa is a relatively wealthy country and must invest in aggressive scouting methods that stretch even to the rural areas, tactical support, good coaches and ensuring that top athletes compete regularly in international events. It takes more than just flashy state-of-the-art facilities to achieve success.”

The 36-year-old Olympian says his formal training might have begun when he was 15 years old, but being conditioned to run long distance was something he inherited from as young as two years of age, growing up in the high altitudes of his village.

‘You do not find long-distance runners from Addis Ababa or Nairobi, but more likely from the outskirt villages of Ethiopia and Kenya, where people need less air to breathe.”

He emphasises the need to visit the countryside in search of long-distance and marathon runners who do not catch the bus or train but walk and run to school every day.

It is not difficult to pick up the effect on Maphanga of the encounters with the famous runner, which began in London 2007, followed by a training stint in Dubai before this Kenya trip. ‘Just being round him is amazing and drives me to work even harder and also win a gold medal at the Olympics one day,” says the 17-year-old.

She has set herself high goals for this year. ‘I want to make the senior national team for the world championships and All Africa Games, and use that as my stepping stone to be selected for the South Africa 2012 Olympic team.” There is no doubting this table tennis prodigy’s potential and resolve to fulfil these goals.

At 36, and with 19 years of success behind him, many a runner would be thinking of retiring. Not Gebrselassie.

‘I intend to run even in the 2012 Olympic Games. I believe nothing beats a big heart in sport and when I look at someone like Oscar Pistorius then I am motivated to defy all odds,” he says.

Gebrselassie, who revealed his deep admiration for South Africa’s Paralympic hero, believes Pistorius has done more for running than any other athlete. ‘His determination on and off the track is nothing short of admirable,” he says.

But, in country in which he has helped turn running into a vehicle to escape poverty, Gebrselassie will need more than a big heart to stave off the challenge being posed by the emerging pool of fine young Ethiopian runners.

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