For a man of such awe-inspiring achievements, Haile Gebrselassie is remarkably disarming in person.
The wiry 41-year-old is an elite member of the long-distance running pantheon, rising from a farm in Ethiopia to become a double Olympic gold medallist and fivetime world champion over 10,000m.
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As if that success wasn’t enough, nine marathon victories – including a trio of consecutive triumphs at the Dubai Marathon from 2008 to 2010 – followed in the second half of his career after turning his hand to the most gruelling racing discipline in the world.
Gebrselassie mixed freely at the Mall of the Emirates yesterday evening (Wednesday) at adidas’ Supernova Glide Boost stand, raising cheers as he gamely pounded the floor pads on a marathon simulator.
Bedecked in his sponsors’ gear at their store, he was even mistaken for a shop attendant as a child enquired whether he had one of the German brand’s trainers in a size 6.
The potentially embarrassing episode was met with the same trademark smile that beamed from the top step of the podium at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
Humility radiates from one of sport’s finest statesmen. He is now a successful businessman employing 1,600 people and determined to one day make a positive impact in Ethiopian politics.
This attitude extends to his memories of one of athletics’ greatest moments when asked about it by Sport360°, feeling unnecessarily guilty when recollecting his 0.09 seconds victory 15 years ago against Kenyan rival Paul Tergat that followed a blistering final kick from the pair which lit up the Sydney Games.
"Thinking about the past, most of the things I did were the best" – Gebrselassie
“With Paul Tergat, the race in 2000 in Sydney was amazing,” he said. “When I think about Paul, I can say he was not lucky,
“Paul was a very strong athlete. Even sometimes I blame myself, but what can you say?
“Paul was a perfect athlete. He was a good athlete in the same period of time.
“Both of us should have won the gold in Sydney.
” Gebrselassie is at pains to state he is not retired from running. Not surprising when as late as the 2013 BUPA Great North Run he finished third, slightly more than 30 seconds behind anointed successor Kenenisa Bekele and reigning Olympic and world champion Mo Farah.
New challenges exist after entering his fifth decade. Property, coffee and mining businesses keep the successful entrepreneur busy enough to delay entry into Ethiopian politics beyond this May’s elections.
But his time in public service will come, as he said: “I have to do a lot in my businesses. Those businesses have to be put in a proper way.
“A lot of people have asked me about being in the parliament. But one of the businesses I have just started is gold mining, and it is a really hard one and takes an awful lot of my time.
“For me, I want to share my experience. People ask why I want to get involved in politics, and they think I just want the position.
“It is not like that. I want to think about my country and change Ethiopia in a good way.
“It is not an easy experience what I did all around the world. I travelled for the last 25 years, it is not easy being in more than 100 countries,” he added.
A morning regimen of runs keeps Gebrselassie lean, cutting a similar figure to the one that first posted notice of his potential with 5,000m and 10,000m gold at the 1992 Junior World Championships.
Despite cutting down on his elite-level racing commitments, he admitted “it is not easy to step back” after such highs.
“We don’t talk about the retirement – I am still running,” said Gebrselassie, who has set 27 world records. “I have not done so much recently as I had an injury in my chest after falling down in the forest.
“Running is everything. All my life I have been running, I competed for 27 years.
“For me, I don’t see it as such a long time. I am doing good now, even though I don’t do what I did six or seven years ago.
“Every morning, 05:35, I am going to the forest and doing my morning session in an easy way.
“It is not easy to step back when you have been at such a high level. I not only had many good years, but also difficulties, problems and great achievements on the track – thinking about the past, most of the things I did were the best.
” Gebrselassie is in Dubai for this weekend’s Standard Chartered Dubai marathon, which will see 25,000 -plus people take to the streets.
The city and athlete have a reciprocal relationship. He claimed a trio of victories while his very presence elevated the race to the highest echelons of the marathon calendar.
“Dubai is a very special place,” he said. “Many people know it more for shopping and tourism.
“But many people come for the Dubai Marathon. I have been in this marathon three times, and it is really fantastic"
The competitive zeal remains which saw him disappointed to miss out on breaking his own world record in Dubai six years ago, despite finishing well ahead of countryman Deressa Chimsa at 2:05:29.
The determination has been transferred to his business ventures. A valuable portfolio has been built up in the last few years, successfully swapping his running spikes for sharp suits.
He refuses to hang up his vest just yet though, athletic competition remaining intrinsic.
A new vanguard led by tomorrow’s star draw Bekele will do well to follow in the footsteps of a man for whom life remains “another tournament” to conquer.
He said: “In sport, if you are No1 you take everything. It influences you a lot, It is the same in business. That’s why nowadays I have 1,600 people working in my company.
I do farming, hotels, schools. It is another tournament.”