Giggs adapted the way he plays football to compensate for his diminishing speed and endurance. Schumacher can cling to the idea that he'll win again just as soon as Mercedes gives him a faster car. But running is far less forgiving. The stopwatch brutally exposes those who no longer have the pace.
In the interview, Hermens talked in lukewarm terms of Gebrselassie possibly trying again at the Hamburg Marathon in April to qualify for London or maybe even aiming for one of Ethiopia's three spots in the Olympic 10,000. But he must earn it. There seems no question of Ethiopia gifting Gebrselassie a place, or of him accepting it, if he's not one of the fastest three.
"He doesn't like to be treated otherwise," Ethiopian Athletics Federation President Bisrat Gashawtena Tirfie said in a phone interview. "He doesn't like any favors."
Gebrselassie likes to say that age is only a mental thing. But is his body still willing? In Tokyo, he complained of back pain. He dropped out of the 2010 New York City Marathon with an inflamed, fluid-filled right knee and from the 2007 London Marathon with breathing difficulties.
Gebrselassie seems to be digesting that the London Games may now be beyond him, tweeting this week: "It looks like my Olympic marathon dream is over."
But Hermens is giving him time.
"He might go home and do track training next week and call me and say, 'Hey, I see possibilities,'" he said. "There are still many options. Although, on the other hand, probably he will get injuries from the track and so then we'll get all the stupid excuses again — you know, problem lungs, problem back."
"We all know at the moment he's a legend," he said. "If he continues too long, then it takes away from his legacy."
I, for one, disagree with that notion. Gebrselassie will be remembered for his achievements no matter how bumpily his career may end or how drawn-out it is.
Steve Cram, a former world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters, agrees. Cram had a "good few years" toward the end of his career where he was injured, wasn't fit and didn't qualify for championships, "but nobody comes up to me now and talks to me about that."
"All athletes — myself, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett — we all had periods at the end of our careers when things didn't go well. We all had two or three championships where we weren't contending for medals and things and it hasn't damaged anybody's reputation as far as I can see," Cram said in a phone interview.
"In the long term, what people do is look back on the great things that you did in your career and Haile's got a whole list and he's right at the top of the list of distance runners. So I can't see that ever being taken away."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester