Retired distance running great Haile Gebrselassie threw down the gauntlet to his Kenyan peers at the glittering 2016 Safaricom Sports Personality of the Year Awards on how to transition from a champion to a leader.
Gebrselassie, who is the President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), caused a stir at the 13th edition of the Soya awards when he rose to speak, and it was not lost on those gathered, among them those he competed against and beat, the reason behind his quick rise to the top of his federation.
Wearing his infectious smile that has attracted him to millions across the world when he unfurled a career that saw 27 world records fall, the two-time Olympics men 10000m gold medallist proved he is adept in his new role as the man in charge of his country’s sport.
In fact, the EAF role is seen by many in his homeland as a footstool to the greater prize of leading his nation as Prime Minister in the future. Haile wasted no time demonstrating his statesmanship in his short but powerful delivery on stage.
“I did not expect to come here and say few words since there is a lot to say,” the four-time World and World Indoor champion started.
“I’m honoured to be here with you, it is very important for Kenyan sport to be honoured.
“I would like to applaud Kenyans for making this happen,” Haile said of the Soya Awards that are a brainchild of his best friend outside competition and the fiercest rival on it, Paul Tergat.
“It is good to end a season and then come here and become a sports personality of the year. For those who do not win, it gives them motivation to fight next year. That is the importance of these awards,” he added.
Despite retiring from the sport after the 2015 Great Manchester Run, the competitive streak that saw him dish heartache to the best Kenya and the world had to offer in his heyday was still evident.
“We don’t have such awards in Ethiopia but we have the biggest road race in Africa, the Great Ethiopia Run.
“When I go back home, we shall see whether we can do our own ceremony,” Haile said gazing at Tergat who nodded with approval.
“I’m very surprised that these awards are so big. It means a lot for Africa and the whole world and we have all sports represented here, not only athletics.”
Tergat, who won silver when Haile took the gold at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Olympics Games, runs the annual Baringo Half Marathon.
However, it pales in comparison to the Great Ethiopian Run that last year featured 37,000 participants, 500 elite runners and several hundred fun athletes.
Haile, who remains devoted to running daily despite his heavy schedule as EAF leader, businessman and ambassador, told his Kenyan rivals he was not done with them yet.
“I miss competing with you guys but don’t worry, I’m preparing someone to come and compete with you. I’m a founder of the biggest race in Africa and from there; I know the next one will come.
“Kenya and Ethiopia need to work together to shape the sport in Africa,” he added.
“The only difference between being president and an athlete is one was competing and the other is watching,” Haile said.
“I won some races, others I lost but it was giving the best that mattered,” he added.
Then the gloves came off as he turned on a subject that has cast aspersions on the established tradition of distance running excellence by Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes— the doping scourge.
To the former world marathon record holder, the catalyst to the escalating problem that has led the World Anti-Doping Agency to place both countries on its watch-list is simple.
“Let us win this fight because somebody from outside is destroying our sports. Those people come here and do these things,” Haile remarked, blaming foreigners who have infiltrated the sport for quick gain.
“It should not be Kenya and Ethiopia doing it since we would be the biggest losers.
“There is no Ethiopia without Kenya and no Kenya without Ethiopia,” he remarked.
“Athletes should race wisely since the results will be for all Kenyans who sweat with Kenya,” the man simply known as ‘The Emperor’ in athletics noted in calling for a clean sport.
Earlier, Tergat had alluded to the subject telling the sporting glitterati of how they would get seven bells out of each other without using proscribed substances to gain an edge.
“I remember those days when we used to compete. That time when sport was sport with everything being fair and square,” Tergat told.
Haile then took on to the disturbing trend that has seen Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes turn to road running at an early age.
“Running a marathon at 20, I know very well about sport and it will not work, I’m very concerned about this and it should stop,” he said.
Haile, dapper in a blue suit, white shirt and red tie, retreated to his seat with a standing ovation ringing in his ears.
David Rudisha, the two-time Olympics champion and world 800m record holder was one of those who engaged Haile in an engrossing conversation as guests mingled following the awards.
‘King David’ is among those being fronted to run Athletics Kenya after he hangs his spikes and there was no doubt he must have sought counsel from the diminutive Emperor.