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Did politics play a role in Gebrselassie’s short-lived retirement?

By Reuters Staff
November 29, 2010

haileBy Aaron Maasho

It is not hard to notice Haile Gebrselassie’s huge popularity in Ethiopia. It emanates from pride over his illustrious career that saw him break 27 world records, as much as from who he is when not running.

With his ever-present smile and sarcastic quips, “The Emperor” — as he is affectionately known — has never shied away from charity work, as well as providing hundreds of jobs to impoverished locals in his numerous business ventures.

Having spent the vast part of his 20-year career on the track, Gebrselassie switched to the marathon and has never displayed signs of weakening, despite his 37 years.

Until this month, that is, when the wealthy athlete unexpectedly announced his retirement after a knee injury forced him to pull out of the New York marathon.

“I never thought about retirement,” he tearfully told reporters afterwards. “But for the first time, this is the day. Let me stop and do other work after this.”

Gebrselassie’s sudden announcement sent shockwaves through the athletics world and prompted criticism at home because he dropped the bombshell overseas rather than in his own country.

The reason for his decision was unclear — and the rumour mill went into overdrive.

First came a report on an opposition party-linked website that claimed Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s wife was attempting to force the multi-millionaire into business partnerships.

Then followed an article in The New York Times that quoted his agent as saying his phone had been tapped by government officials and he had faced “some sort of blackmail attempt” — and this had partly provoked his decision to retire.

But Gebrselassie and his agent came out fiercely against the reports, blaming fatigue and emotion for his tearful outburst.

Yet, Gebrselassie has never distanced himself from politics. He once told me he was considering a political career once he had hung up running shoes.

Reports during Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 general elections also claimed the popular athlete was a supporter of a now-defunct opposition party, whose leaders subsequently spent time behind bars on treason charges.

An opposition leader has told me Gebrselassie was under “so much pressure” this year that he even attended a ruling party conference to give Meles a shirt he wore in one of his memorable races “in order to soothe relations”.

Yet, some observers have dismissed the allegations altogether, accusing opportunist politicians, still rankling from defeat at this year’s polls, of spreading “lies and fabrications” just to damage the prime minister’s reputation.

Gebrselassie has now reversed his decision saying he intends to compete for at least another two years.

But the mystery surrounding the events in New York still lingers despite his explanation.

So was Gebrselassie’s “pressured” retirement saga the result of an opposition party prank? Or was he the victim of some sort of government foul play?

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