World marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie is hosting Ethiopia's biggest road race this Sunday. The 7th annual Great Ethiopian Run is expected to draw 35,000 entrants. VOA's correspondent in Addis Ababa, Peter Heinlein, reports Gebrselassie was the surprise honoree at a pre-race news conference.
The theme of the Great Ethiopian Millennium Run is "A Celebration of Achievement." At a meeting with reporters two days before the event, Ethiopia's legendary road runner Haile Gebrselassie paid tribute to the great racers he idolized as a child. And in a tribute to him, nearly all Ethiopia's greats, past and present, were on hand as he was surprised with an award.
There to present him a trophy for the fastest marathon time of 2006, all the way from the United States, was the director of the New York City Marathon, Mary Wittenberg.
"I'm thrilled to be here for this event, which is a world-class event, one of the biggest, one of the best in the world, and an inspiration to race organizers and runners around the world," said Wittenberg. "And it's a special treat to be here for the Millennium Run, and I would travel anywhere in the world to honor Haile Gebrselassie."
Wittenberg made no secret she is trying to lure Haile to run in next year's New York marathon. She noted that the world record-holder has run in four of the world's five premier marathons - in London, Boston, Berlin and Chicago - but never in New York.
Haile, who may have received more awards than any other runner, seemed overwhelmed at the award, and another one he learned about days ago while watching television.
"They should tell me this before. Now, I have a lot of surprises," he said. "Day before yesterday was the news I became Sportsman of Africa, the one [announced] in Ghana. Hey. I was watching the news. How possible is that? Thank you. Wow!"
Haile also paid tribute to the great Ethiopian runners he idolized in his youth, including the late Abebe Bekila, who won the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics running barefoot; and Miruts Yifter, who at the age of 37 scored a double gold in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter runs at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Noting that he is still only 34, Haile said Miruts gives him hope that he still has a few good years ahead of him. "This is 27 years [ago]. Imagine. He's now 63," he said. "He won Moscow Olympics when he was 37, [so in] the next three years I can do something. You know why I started running? Because of him."
Among other running legends who flew in to honor Haile was Briton David Moorcroft, who broke the world record at 5,000 meters in 1982 in a time of 13 minutes flat. That record has since been surpassed by many African runners, but still holds in the United Kingdom.
Moorcroft noted it was the early 1980s when African runners established themselves at the top of the international standings. "Although now you're so dominant in this continent, and Ethiopia are at the moment particularly dominant," said Moorcroft, "it was great to be part, and watch the emergence of African athletes."
Haile Gebrselassie told the hall filled with runners and reporters it should be no secret why Africans, and Ethiopians in particular, do so well in international competitions. He explained that running in Africa is not an individual sport. Here runners work as a team.
"I could win many medals because of this tactic," he said. "We Ethiopians, maybe we have, if there is a small problem between us, when we start the race, especially world championships or Olympic games, we help each other. This is our tradition."
Haile noted that scattered throughout the hall were teammates, runners who often finish second, third or fourth in races that he wins. Those, he says, are the unsung heroes of Africa's running success.