Road racing legend Haile Gebrselassie says he is angry and disappointed at a US newspaper report saying his on-again, off-again retirement may have been due to pressure from Ethiopia's government. The world marathon champ expects to be back in action soon.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Haile Gebrselassie took some of the blame for what many thought was a retirement announcement after knee pain forced him to drop out of the New York marathon this month.
"When I dropped out, at the finish line they call me up in front the media to tell what happened," said Haile. "Imagine just to complain after promising to win the race, I was a bit shy and a bit nervous. And 'hey, what's going on?' And instead of that let me sacrifice myself just to stop competing and to do another things, and that's why I was a little bit emotional, that's the only reason."
But the legendary runner expressed surprise and anger at a New York Times article suggesting his retirement may have stemmed in part from political pressure in Ethiopia. The article quoted Haile's manager as saying the athlete's phone had been tapped by government officials, and that he had faced some sort of blackmail attempt, suggesting the family of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was involved.
Haile said he didn't know where the information had come from.
"I was a little bit disappointed when I heard this news," he said. "I don't understand they say that way. It really makes me very angry. Because they should ask me. I'm doing sport. Why [do] they write that way? It's not good."
The website "letsrun.com" reports that the Times is standing behind its story about the political pressures facing Haile. The website quoted a Times spokesman as saying, "We reported the story correctly".
On another subject, Haile Gebrselassie confirmed that he will continue running. He has a busy schedule of commitments, including the Tokyo marathon in February and the London olympics in 2012.
"The Emperor" as he is sometimes called, said his growing involvement in business enterprises, including a new resort in southern Ethiopia, would not distract him from his passion for running.
"Believe it or not, whatever I do, running is my top priority," said Haile. "It doesn't matter what I'm going to do. Business. Anything happening. Running is top priority. Not only for myself, for you guys also. Don't forget. Before you do something, run something."
Haile's comments came at an event promoting the 10th Great Ethiopian Run, which will be held Sunday in Addis Ababa. The 10-kilometer run is expected to draw 35,000 participants, including a number of current and former world champions and olympic medalists.
John Treacy, who won a silver medal for Ireland in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon, is in this run just for fun. Sitting on stage alongside the current world champion, Treacy called this "people's race" an inspiration for millions of potential future Haile Gebrselassies.
"If you're a young Ethiopian growing up, you can say,'that's the emperor, I want to be like Haile Gebrselassie.' And maybe growing up in Ireland, people look at me, and they say, I know he's gray and he's a bit slower now, but he did it at the world stage, so I can do it as well," said Treacy. "It can inspire you and you can reach those heights."
Haile, considered one of the great distance runners of all time, is more than a hero in Ethiopia. He is probably the most beloved person in the country's athletic history. His appearance at a recent conference of the country's ruling party was one of the event's highlights.
The 37-year-old Haile has at one time held 27 world records, and won two Olympic gold medals in the 10,000 meter race. He currently holds the world record for the marathon in 2:03:59, which he ran at the Berlin Marathon in September 2008.