The scene looked so familiar: A small, birdlike man ran laps around the Olympic track. His chest was thrust forward beneath the green singlet of Ethiopia. His teeth were bared, his eyes wide and alert. He was even tinier than the skeletal men he stalked, and he ran with a miler's racing gait, not a distance runner's hurried shuffle. In the final straightaway of the 10,000 meters, Haile Gebrselassie sprinted first to the finish, as he had done so many times before. Yet something was different. "This one," he said, "was the most difficult of all."
Gebrselassie, 27, will someday be remembered for his four consecutive world championships in the 10,000 (1993, '95, '97 and '99) and for becoming only the third man in Olympic history, after Emil Z�topek of Czechoslovakia ('48 and '52) and Lasse Viren of Finland (72 and 76) to win consecutive gold medals in the longest track event of the Games. Yet those achievements are merely part of Gebrselassie's contribution to his sport.
Distance running changed dramatically in the last decade of the 20th century, and no individual was more responsible for that than Gebrselassie. When the 1990s began, the world record for the 10,000 was 27:08.23, set by Arturo Barrios of Mexico. The 5,000 record was 12:58.39, by Said Aouita of Morocco. Gebrselassie, all 5'3" and less than 120 pounds of him, broke each record three times between '95 and '98, dragging the 10,000 mark down to 26:22.75 and the 5,000 to 12:39.36, times that were thought by track cognoscenti to be unreachable in the foreseeable future. He earned the grudging respect of other African runners, including the gifted Kenyans, whom he so often beat. He matched the Kenyans' stamina and then outkicked them, no matter the pace.
He hasn't lost a 10,000 since 1993. He has been too good, in fact, for many experts to embrace, his stunning clockings having raised suspicions that he uses some performance-enhancing drug, perhaps EPO. "The world record should be right around 27 minutes," says former U.S.-record holder Alberto Salazar. "Anything lower and something must be going on." Gebrselassie, however, has never failed a drug test.
He was raised in the highland region of Arssi in Ethiopia, where he ran more than five miles to school each day—"You couldn't drive a car because of the terrain and rivers," he says. His passion for running was lit when, as a seven-year-old, he listened to radio dispatches from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where Ethiopia's Miruts Yifter won both the 5,000 and the 10,000. Gebrselassie began running competitively in 1989 and three years later won the 5,000 and the 10,000 at the world junior championships. In 1993, at age 20, he won his first world title, in Stuttgart, and he has been untouchable in the 10,000 since. A movie, Endurance, was made about his life and struggle. Gebrselassie became one of the wealthiest men in his country.
His track invincibility has recently shown cracks, however. Last fall he underwent surgery to repair a torn left Achilles, and his recovery was difficult. On this summer's European circuit he was seen limping through hotel lobbies after races. "It has not been an easy year for me," he said after winning a 5,000 in Zurich in August. "My tendon is still sore."
He didn't run the 5,000 in Sydney, and many observers thought that in the 10,000, Kenya's Paul Tergat, a five-time world cross-country champion who had finished second to Gebrselassie in the 10,000 at the 1996 Games and twice at the worlds, would finally get him. On Sept. 25, as the leaders turned into the final stretch at the Olympic stadium, Tergat was in front. With 50 meters left, he was still in front. With 30 and 20, too.
Is it not the measure of a great athlete that he wins when his skills are diminished or compromised? Gebrselassie gave chase, running on guts, on memory, and caught Tergat four steps from the finish. Gebrselassie smiled only after crossing the line. "People said Tergat would win," he said the day after the race. "I believed in myself."