New roads ahead for Ethiopia's hero Haile Gebrselassie

Haile Gebrselassie

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News of the retirement of one of Ethiopia's national icons caught most in the country unawares.

Haile Gebrselassie - Olympic gold medallist, winner of more than 20 sporting records, businessman and activist - pulled out of his first appearance at the New York marathon with a knee injury and told journalists afterwards that he was quitting competitive sports.

Ethiopian state television carried the announcement on Monday morning.

"We love Haile very much, every Ethiopian loves him," Eyoseyas Daniel, 23, told the BBC on the streets of the capital Addis Ababa.

He said he was sorry to hear of Haile's retirement and that he hoped he would reconsider.

"He is our hero and I don't think there is any runner who runs like him and I don't think any runner who will come like him. He is just a hero."

Abebe Abebaw said he was a model for the country, while another Addis Ababa resident Walelgn Tamir recalled how he had been at the forefront of Ethiopia's long-distance running rivalry with neighbouring Kenya.

But he recognised that Gebrselassie's career could not go on for ever.

"He is getting old, older and older, so it is getting difficult after this time for him because of age," he said.

Haile the Elder

Haile Gebrselassie, 37, leaves the sport he dominated for the last two decades with a string of records.

But he has also made a name for himself outside the sporting world, as a businessman, educator, philanthropist and art collector.

Haile Gebrselassie completes the Dubai marathon (Jan 2010) It seems unlikely that Haile Gebrselassie will disappear from the public eye

He and his wife, Alem, have three daughters and one son. He told a local magazine last year that he would like his children to become runners, to achieve more than he has and to make their own names.

The couple also own a construction business and built the country's first private cinema, which shows only Ethiopian films. Alem Cinema is in the same building that houses the gym where he trains, Alem Fitness Centre.

He has built and owns two schools, and his resort in the southern tourist town of Hawassa opened earlier this year.

Gebrselassie's influence even stretches into politics. He is one of the Elders, a group of Ethiopians who have mediated in political crises in the country since 2005.

The Elders helped negotiate the release of the people imprisoned in the aftermath of the bitterly-disputed 2005 parliamentary election.

They also helped broker the pardon and release last month of the opposition leader, Birtukan Mideksa. Gebrselassie apparently allowed Ms Birtukan to recuperate at his resort, free of charge, with her mother and young daughter.

He is aware that his achievements in sports have made him an international legend, and told me last year that he would use that platform to make a difference in the world.

And so, beyond national politics, Gebrselassie is involved in international campaigns against climate change and malaria.

He feels strongly that athletes must be taught to manage their finances, and spent one week last November training with and mentoring young runners.

Ten years ago, he founded the Great Ethiopian Run, which has since become known as Africa's biggest road race.

The contest is open to amateur and professional runners and is recognised as a show of talent from the continent's next generation of runners.

So beloved is Gebrselassie in Ethiopia that in 2001, the country's best known musician Tedi Afro composed a song in his honour and with his name.

Given his status both nationally and beyond, there are some who believe that Gebrselassie may not have finished running - but that his next race may well be a political one.

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