Fri, Jul 19, 2013 - Page 19 News List

Running great sets sights on political career

Reuters, ADDIS ABABA

Running legend Haile Gebrselassie smiles in his gymnasium in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday.

Photo: Reuters

As his feet hit the pedals at lightning speed, Haile Gebrselassie barely breaks a sweat on an exercise bike at his gym in the Ethiopian capital’s upscale Bole district.

He then proceeds to work on his chest muscles, hours after jogging down the forested hills in the northern suburbs of Addis Ababa.

The 40-year-old still maintains the tough regimen that brought him track glory and international recognition for two decades, after clinching the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the 1992 Junior World Championships in Seoul.

Two Olympic gold medals, four World Championships titles and 27 world records later, Gebrselassie, regarded by many as the greatest long distance runner of all time, says he still does not know when he will retire from sport.

However, he has yet to start on his one longstanding ambition — to enter politics — something he now plans to do at Ethiopia’s legislative elections, in two years’ time.

“Now I think I am a little bit mature. As I told you in 2010, my ambition was politics,” Gebrselassie told Reuters. “Now 2015 is the perfect time.”

“People think I will become a parliamentarian, but the competition won’t be easy. That’s why I needed to prepare two years in advance,” he said.

Known as “The Emperor”, Gebrselassie enjoys immense popularity in the Horn of Africa country and has used his winnings to build a successful business empire including hotels, a car dealership, a cinema and a sports complex.

However, some in Ethiopia have expressed their surprise at his political aspirations, given the country’s dubious democratic track record.

Politics is dominated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, in power since 1991 when it ousted former Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta.

In parliament, all but two of the 547 seats are held by the ruling party. There is one independent member and only one from an opposition party, which often accuses the government of arbitrarily arresting its members.

Gebrselassie plans to run as an independent, and says he is not daunted by the prospects of politics tarnishing his reputation as a sporting hero. The ruling party had yet to express a clear opinion on the popular athlete’s bid for public office.

“We are dreaming about a democracy like the ones in Europe and America, it’s a long process. How can you expect [that] in 20 years?” he said.

Ethiopia has come a long way, he says, from the days of military leader Mengistu, whose purges killed tens of thousands of people in the mid-1970s when victims’ bodies were often left in the street to discourage dissent.

“We have to give chances. Now we are here, at least we are safe to come back home, at least we are safe to do something else,” he said.

Gebrselassie has yet to issue a policy manifesto, but he says he would support measures to help fight poverty and enable Ethiopia to become a middle-income country.

“As citizens, all of us have a responsibility. Its not only a responsibility for the government or the opposition, all of us have our own responsibility,” he said.

“If we achieve that ... we can change this country, we can reach the democracy we dream [of] and we can eradicate poverty,” Gebrselassie said.

Speaking on the latest doping scandal to hit international athletics, Gebrselassie urged anti-doping bodies to widen the scope of their investigations, after former world sprint champion Tyson Gay failed a dope test, but denied knowingly taking a performance-enhancing drug.

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