The man with the million dollar smile!
Haile Gebrselassie is a name that brings me back to my childhood. I remember watching him on TV with my family. It’s the early 90’s, and the young Ethiopian long distance runner has just emerged on the world stage. He leaves his competition behind and everyone else in awe. This guy is incredible! My father in particular admires him. Somehow the story of a boy, who ran ten kilometers to school and back each day barefoot, resonates with him. Haile runs with his left arm crooked, as if holding a pile of invisible school books. Indeed, he is a sports hero of the purest kind. No coaching, no special diet, not even SHOES – this world champion is the product of good old-fashioned talent and mad resilience.
Fastforward to 2014, and I’m in Addis Ababa for the second time. A little bird has told me the location of Haile’s office on Bole Road and I’m ready to raid the building. I begin at the gym downstairs, where he works out every day. (I’m guessing he likes the treadmill. And it’s HIS gym, by the way.) Perhaps that’s an appropriate place to bother the busy entrepreneur? A little embarrassed, I ask the receptionist what time I might find him there. She tells me it won’t be until much later. “But if you want to talk to him now, you can go upstairs to his office and ask his secretary.” Well then! I do just that. I have to wait all of ten minutes while Haile is in a meeting, and then I’m invited in.
Now, showing up unannounced like this is a little on the audacious side. But my audacity is rewarded. Haile is very friendly and personable. He graciously welcomes me and sits down to talk to me. I have a present for him: a scarf and a little good luck charm from Tunisia, and a box of chocolate-covered dates from Dubai. (I happen to think those dates are amazing, and a suitable gift for anyone from running legends to doctors and their offspring. Besides, Olympic winners eat chocolate for breakfast, everybody knows that.) Haile asks me about my life, trying to understand where it is that I live and work, which often gets people confused. I explain the whole dancing and traveling scenario. “You are a very special person” he says to me. That’s kind of crazy to hear from someone who has set twenty world records. From a country boy to a star athlete to a successful entrepreneur, Haile’s had a wild ride. But you can tell by his warmth that none of that got to him. He’s still that boy with no shoes, only now running a business empire. And THAT is true greatness. That is why it was such an honor to meet him.