Analysis & Hearsay: Haile's Retirement What It Means

By Weldon Johnson
November 7, 2010

November 9 Update: Haile G has tweeted about dropping out. We have an update here

In case you haven't heard, in perhaps the most surreal moment I've ever seen in a press conference, Haile Gebrselassie, the emperor, the "King" as men's champion Gebre Gebremariam called him, the man who is arguably the greatest distance runner to ever live, announced his retirement from the sport today without warning at his post-race press conference.

You can watch the press conference on this page, read our immediate recount of it here, or read a nice NY Times recap of it here if you don't know the details.

Being there was totally bizarre. As long as I have followed professional running, the great Gebrselassie has been there. In 1993, after my freshman year of college, before the internet, way before, Gebrselassie won his first world championship.

Watch Geb Announce His Shocking Decision To Retire

Here I was 17 years later, 20 feet away from him and totally shocked. It took a while for everyone to realize what he was saying, but he really was saying he was retiring. The great one with the great smile was incredibly sad. He was saying this was it. Before the shocking news, I was ready to take Gebrselassie to task for not talking about his knee injury all week, to only tweet about it hours before the race. Another excuse why he lost a competitive marathon. Now that meant nothing. This couldn't be the end, could it?

First, a few comments on the injury itself. It was very real. This was not some excuse for Gebrselassie and some convenient way for him to retire. None of this was planned and Gebrselassie's manager Jos Hermens knew nothing about the retirement talk and was not even in the press conference. Gebrselassie really wanted to win New York and his announcement was a spur-of-the-moment, emotional thing. The big question now is whether Gebrselassie perhaps could be talked into changing his mind, as many - including New York road runners head Mary Wittenberg and 2010 ING New York City marathon champion Gebre Gebremariam - have hopefully suggested.

Could Geb Change His Mind?

Sean Hartnett, who writes for Track and Field News, is a road race cartographer extraordinaire (he does a lot of the topographic maps for many races) and is an expert on the marathon, is a friend of Gebrselassie's. Both Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie are friends with Sean and have sought his counsel on the marathon. It was very fortunate for us at that Sean ran into Geb as Gebrselassie exited the press conference (as Sean had missed the press conference). Sean then rode in the elevator down the 36 floors to the lobby and recapped for us what he saw and then shared his thoughts on Geb with us and said we could share them with you. Sean had previously been scheduled to do a Q&A with Geb tonight. Sean said this may change but he hopes to talk to Geb before he departs on Monday and will have an update.

First, Sean reiterated that in general Gebrselassie is a very emotional person. In the elevator, Geb was super-emotional and Sean said he was talking in circles. Geb was clearly very upset, disappointed and talking about his injury. Our impression was Geb was just pouring everything out to Sean and raw emotion often does not make a lot of sense. Walking away from something you love after over twenty years is not going to be easy.

Sean wanted to know from us what exactly Geb had said at the press conference. I tried to relay it back as best as possible.

Geb REALLY Wanted To Win NY And Is Aware Of The Criticism

Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie (C) runs with the elite runners in the men's race over the Queensboro Bridge past mile 15 in the New York City Marathon in New York, November 7, 2010. World marathon record holder Gebrselassie tearfully announced his retirement on Sunday after dropping out of his first New York City marathon. His compatriot Gebre Gebremariam (rear in green wearing grey cap) won the race. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT ATHLETICS)
Geb Leading Seconds Before He Drops Ou

My main impression from the press conference, besides the shocking turn of events, was that Gebrselassie had trained VERY HARD for this event and was extremely disappointed he had not done well. I felt like he was saying he did not want to make any more excuses or let his fans down.

Three times Geb said he trained "very hard" for New York and if you listen to the press conference, you see him say it with a lot of emotion. Gebrselassie has a lot of business commitments these days and training is often far from his sole focus. However, Geb had apparently bunkered down for New York in the last month and switched off his cell phone, according to Sean.  Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners, mentioned this as well. That meant Gebrselassie was in full training mode. According to Sean, this meant that even if Haile's agent, Jos Hermens, wanted to talk to Gebrselassie, he had to call Haile's wife, who would relay messages to Haile.

New York Was More Important Than Another WR

As stated earlier, Sean said Haile is a tremendously emotional person and that is one of the reasons behind his success. He said that Haile takes the criticism of his career seriously and was well aware of the criticism that he could not win in New York or take down a competitive field in a non time-trial race. Sean said Gebrselassie truly believed he could still break the world record in the marathon and that he had that type of effort in him, but that winning New York became more important. So he prepared for New York like he was trying to break the world record and put everything behind it.

As for the injury, supposedly it bothered him a little bit a couple of weeks ago but flared up earlier this week and got worse after a workout which we believe was Monday in Ethiopia. Haile came here and was optimistic but had some worries. Mary Wittenberg said she suspected something was up when Haile cancelled going to an event for kids Thursday to sleep. Friday or Saturday, Haile was getting a massage and the massage therapist told everyone who was there, including Sean, that this was a very serious injury. That is when they got the MRI and found the fluid on the knee.

I asked Sean then if this injury was so serious why Haile started the race, but I think I knew the answer. Perhaps it was too late for Haile to drop out, as he had everything emotionally invested and felt a lot of gratitude for everyone for bringing him here. He had been the talk of the town at two press conferences. He couldn't drop out now. Professional athletes have to have an almost delusional belief in themselves in the first place. If Haile could run, he could still win, right?

NYRR head Mary Wittenberg knew the answer was no and said as much at the post-race press conference. She said initially the NYRR thought Haile may not run the race at all after they were advised of the knee problem. She said Haile was "hopeful" on the starting line this morning, but deep down she knew what the result would be. "To be honest, I knew. There's just no way, there's no way. No matter how good you are you can't win let alone like to finish on a course when it begins to feel like this when you've got a major knee problem," said Wittenberg.

Haile Gebrselassie (C) runs through Brooklyn during the New York City Marathon November 7, 2010. World marathon record holder Gebrselassie tearfully announced his retirement on Sunday after dropping out of his first New York City marathon. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT ATHLETICS)

So Will He Change His Mind?

The big question everyone was left pondering was would Gebrsealssie change his mind. Gebrselassie does not want to let his fans down and make any more excuses and is a man of his word. So if he said he's retired, then perhaps he will stay retired so he does not go back on his word and continue to let his fans down. That train of thought can easily be reversed, as Gebrselassie is a man of his word and already committed to the Tokyo Marathon next spring and his fans may want to see him run one more race and show the champion he is.

Sean Hartnett pointed out that in 2006 after the London Marathon, where Gebrselassie finished in 9th place, Geb was extremely emotional in his room, and talking about retiring. Fortunately, Geb continued on as he would set the world record 2.5 years later in Berlin.

Just two days ago, Geb talked about running in the marathon in the London 2012 Olympics, when he'll be 39. Sean said he had discussed with Geb and Jos a more limited schedule after Tokyo (Tokyo is just 16 weeks from today) to get Geb to London.

Clearly, there is a possibility that Gebrselassie can change his mind. However, the one thing that is different that was pointed out by Ethiopian running expert and freelance journalist Sabrina Yohannes, who knows nearly all the Ethiopian runners, and often translates for many of them at press conferences, was that Gebrselassie had uttered the words he was retiring.

All week, Gebrselassie scoffed at the idea of retirement. One week ago as Quote of the Day, we featured on this quote from Gebrselassie:

  "Why should I say I will retire in three or four years? You retire the very moment you utter those words."

Now Gebrselassie was saying he was retiring, but that it was immediate.

Maybe with reflection, things would be different, but after a retirement announcement, things won't necessarily be the same.

Mary Wittenberg perhaps summed up the situation best: "This is the kind of athlete that when you've performed to the highest of highs, he may very well decide that it's enough. But I think with reflection - actually, it's really up to him, obviously. But in some ways maybe a good thing's enough at some point. But I'm not sure we're at that point with Haile, because it was going really well."

Indeed, things had been going pretty darn well for Haile of late. Yes, he no longer is invincible and his times in the marathon hadn't been as good of late, but it was only two years ago that he had set the world record in the marathon and he came into New York having won six straight marathons. Moreover, at the BUPA Great North Run in September, he had destroyed American hopeful Dathan Ritzenhein by 3-plus minutes by clocking 59:33 - his fastest time since 2008.

Given how well Haile had been running coming into New York and given how emotional a person he is and given how hard it is for all top notch athletes to walk away, I won't be surprised if I see him on a starting line in the near future.

Of course, given how unique of a person Haile is, I also won't be shocked if he's one of the few sportsmen who knows before the public does when it's time to talk away.

Selfishly, I want to see him back in New York next year.

Haile On The Boards:
There are quite a few threads on the message boards on Haile and his retirement announcement:
*Haile Gebrselassie Just Announced His Retirement from the Sport
*Haile Gebrselassie Appreciation Thread
*Haile Gebrselassie: isn't retired, He Will Compete Again!

We personally likes this post:

    "A personal perspective on Haile's career to the modern college student -

    He won his first Gold Medal (WC's) in 1993 10k. I was 3. I had just learned how to use a tricycle.

    He set his first Work Record (5k) in 1994. I was 4. I had just learned how to ask understandable questions.

    He won his first Olympic Gold (10) in 1996. I was 6. I had just entered Kindergarten.

    The movie 'Endurance' came out in 1999. I was 9. I was just trying to figure out what sport I would be good at.

    Skip ahead to 2007. Haile sets the Marathon WR 2:04:26. I was 17, and had THAT DAY run a mile TT in just under 4:30. The second place guy on my team ran a 4:42; Haile's marathon pace.

    Haile has always been a part of running in my memory. Rather, Haile HAS BEEN running in my memory.

    You will be missed, and know you transformed our sport.


    November 9 Update: Haile G has tweeted about dropping out. We have an update here


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