By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — For two decades, Haile Gebrselassie enchanted fans of running with his mastery of the art.
Because he is such a rare athlete, because of his infectious joie de vivre and because he is an all-around admirable guy, it's now somewhat stressful to see him age. The wear and tear of a life that started on a poor, Ethiopian farm are making the double Olympic champion and four-time world champion in the 10,000 meters look increasingly mortal.
The world records in the marathon, 5,000 and 10,000 that once were his belong now to others. With his 39th birthday looming in April, Gebrselassie will never get them back. His ambition of competing at a fifth Olympic Games, in London this July, appears to be fading. His most recent marathon wasn't close to good enough to warrant a place on Ethiopia's Olympic team.
Which all begs the question: Should Gebrselassie retire? It's not that "The Emperor" of long-distance running suddenly has no clothes. But could he undermine his reputation by competing for much longer? Having done so much right over the years, is he getting the end of his career wrong? Is there such a thing as a messy retirement and, if so, can it tarnish the way in which an athlete is remembered?
The dilemma of how and when to stop isn't, of course, unique to Gebrselassie.
Lance Armstrong must have wrestled with it, too, when he U-turned on retirement and embarked on another two tours of France — in 2009, which turned out well, and 2010, which didn't.
Fans of American football grew familiar with aging Brett Favre's long summers of indecision before the sheer physical punishment of the game forced the star quarterback to retire.
At Manchester United, 38-year-old Ryan Giggs continues to poke Father Time in the eye on a regular basis. His match-winning goal last month in his 900th appearance for the English Premier League champion again showed how wise he's been to keep going.
But the argument that Michael Schumacher should have remained retired will gain traction if the seven-time Formula One champion fails again this season, the third of his comeback, to win a race.
Gebrselassie's manager, Jos Hermens, who first spotted the compact, fluid runner with a barrel chest at a cross-country race for juniors in Ethiopia in 1991, says there's no single, correct way for an athlete to retire.
Still, he wants Gebrselassie to finish his career with the same grace with which he runs. "I don't want him to think in five years ... I should have stopped earlier," Hermens says.
After Sunday's Tokyo Marathon, Hermens suggested to Gebrselassie they should start planning his exit, perhaps with a farewell tour in 2013. Gebrselassie's fourth-place time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 17 seconds, was more than three minutes slower than the sub-2:05s clocked by three Ethiopians at the Dubai Marathon in January. That means they, not him, are likely bound for London, because Ethiopia plans to send its fastest marathoners from 2012 — not necessarily its most famous — to the Olympics.
"Sunday night we had a conversation, and I suggested to him it's better to stop," Hermens said in a phone interview. "I suggested to him to take 2013 as a sort of kind of year for goodbyes, like a pop star would do."
But this is a tough one. Gebrselassie isn't short of other things to do. He builds offices and schools in Ethiopia. He has his family. He receives visitors. This week, British comedian Eddie Izzard, who ran 43 marathons in 7 weeks in 2009, trained with him in Addis Ababa.
But running has been Gebrselassie's life's goal since he borrowed his dad's radio as a 7-year-old to listen to a broadcast of distance runner Miruts Yifter win gold for Ethiopia at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Running got Gebrselassie to school — 12 miles (19 kilometers) there and back every day — and all the fame and fortune he has accumulated since. It is easy to imagine that Gebrselassie might feel, as other athletes have done, that retirement is, in Hermens' words, "the big black hole."
"He's addicted to the schedule, getting up at 5 o'clock on the morning, training, in the office until 4 o'clock, then another training, and then go home in the evening," Hermens said. "I didn't expect him to hold onto it. My feeling is that's also a little bad — holding on to something you really like."
"He just wants to be the 21-year-old boy that could do everything he wants, with all his talents, to enjoy it, and go back to those days," he said. "He's just in a transition stage of trying to accept, too, that he's not anymore one of the big boys. And we don't know, maybe in a few months he will realize, maybe it will take longer."