Since 2006, the world marathon record has fallen six times in the city of Berlin, and two of those were thanks to Haile Gebrselassie.
The Ethiopian superstar’s first record-breaking performance came in September 2007, when he finished in 2:04:26—29 seconds faster than Kenyan great Paul Tergat four years earlier. The win marked Gebrselassie’s second consecutive victory in the German capital, and it set the stage for more than just a three-peat.
On September 28, 2008, Gebrselassie became the first man in history to run a sub-2:04 marathon. He did so by one second, finishing in 2:03:59, and with that, he set a record that would hold for another three years.
“Today, I’m so, so, so happy,” Gebrselassie said afterward. “Everything was perfect today.”
If that was his most perfect day, his career has had its share of pretty good ones. By the time Gebrselassie officially retired from competitive running in May 2015 at the age of 42, he’d won two Olympic gold medals, nine IAAF world titles, and set more than two dozen world indoor and outdoor records.
From “Smiling Assassin” to Role Model
Born on April 18, 1973, in the Arsi Province of Ethiopia, Haile Gebrselassie grew up on a farm where he was one of 10 children. He’s said his training began when he was two years old, since helping his parents fetch water and running back and forth several kilometers to school—all in the region’s high altitudes—prepped him for a life in athletics.
He ran the IAAF World Junior Cross Country championships in Antwerp in 1991, finishing eighth. He followed that up with a second-place place finish the next year in Boston, and later that year he won the 5000 and 10,000 meters at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Seoul. In 1993, Gebrselassie notched his first of four consecutive 10,000-meter world titles, and in 1995, he experienced what he still calls his “most memorable achievement,” a world-record-breaking performance in the 5000 meters at the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich. Gebrselassie finished in 12:44.39, besting the old record by nearly 11 seconds.
In 1996, Gebrselassie struck gold at the Atlanta Olympics, narrowly beating rival Paul Tergat in the 10,000 meters. When he successfully defended his title four years later, at the Sydney Games, he became only the third man in history to notch back-to-back Olympic wins over that distance.
Although he’s retired from competition, Gebrselassie hasn’t stopped training. “You cannot stop running,” he said after his final race. “This is my life.” He’s also established himself as a successful businessman and a mentor to young runners via the G4S 4teen program. Once called the “smiling assassin” because of his cheerful disposition, he’s not an athlete who’s shied away from being a role model. His message: “Win for yourself.”
"I ask people win themselves first, which means you can win anything that you dream, that you plan, what you want,” he told CNN in 2013. “This really is my tip for everyone.”
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