Two Olympic gold medals, four world titles and 27 world records. This is just a small excerpt from the sporting curriculum vitae of long-distance legend Haile Gebrselassie. The Ethiopian, who is considered one of the greatest long-distance runners of this generation, is now an entrepreneur who, among other things, runs a hotel chain with over 3000 employees. Gebrselassie is in the capital to celebrate the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon on Sunday. In an interaction with The Sunday Express, Gebrselassie spoke about his love of Indian cinema, the similarities in cultures and why running is his favorite job.
Your connection to India started with skipping school to watch Indian films, right?
I will first tell you why Indian films are so popular in Ethiopia. The people and the culture are very similar. Family, way of life and everything is very similar and that’s why Ethiopians are crazy about Indian movies. Whenever I was late for school and didn’t want to be punished by the teacher, I went to the cinema. The punishment was a smack on the palm with a stick. Tickets were only 50 cents back then, and since we had a communist system, we weren’t allowed to see western films.
You founded your theater in 2004. Do you also play Indian films now?
In the beginning yes. But thanks to Ethiopian filmmakers who are now creating content, Ethiopian films have become very popular now. My cinema hall is the country’s first private theater after the communist system. In the meantime, many cinemas have sprung up across the country.
They have been instrumental in the filmmaking boom in Ethiopia. Did you have a cinema background or knowledge?
I was the one who started it (making Ethiopian films). It was my dream to have my own cinema. After the completion of my hall, which has 400 seats, with a very nice facility that comes from Belgium. But then I realized that there were no Ethiopian films. After that, I just found a person who knew how to write a screenplay. I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you making a film? I will make an amount available for this. That was a large sum at the time. They shot the film in 3-4 months and then I tried to show it to the public. The story was wonderful to me, but the youngsters didn’t like it that much.
Then I met a very good actor and I said to him why don’t you do a good love story or comedy? I supported him and he made a beautiful love story. And cinema just started to grow and then I started supporting other people too. After three or four films, people started pouring in and the hall was full the whole time. People with money quickly realized that cinema is the best business, and now when you come to Ethiopia there are many halls. But mine was the first.
Your family wasn’t very supportive of your cinema business at first, right?
My family called me crazy. They said if you have that much money, instead of throwing it away in this stupid way, give it to the poor. i love movies And it always started with Bollywood. There were no subtitles and sometimes we didn’t even know the original title of the film. We had this one film that I really liked and we called it Elephant my friend (Hathi mere sathi, a 1971 Bollywood hit starring Rajesh Khanna). My favorite was Mother India and I still watch it. Watching this film, it looks like a story from Ethiopia.
You always mentioned how important your family was in your career as an athlete and now as a businessman. Can you tell us more about it?
When we talk about family in Ethiopia, it’s not just about the children and the parents. The uncle, aunt, grandparents, nieces, etc. are all there. This is very different from the western world. For example, if you come to my house, you will see that even when we have a visitor, we treat you like family. You can’t say oh you can’t stay with us. When I have a problem, my family members come to me to help solve it. Marriage in Ethiopia and India is very similar. Big Wedding; lots of music and dancing.
They are here to promote the Delhi Half Marathon. You also organize similar events at home, so how important are these competitions?
Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon is a kind of attraction for people who want to consider sport and fitness as part of their life. Before such events I’m not sure how many people ran outside here in India. We have a similar culture. I have been organizing such races in Ethiopia for over 20 years and before I started such events there, outdoor running for women was almost forbidden. But after 20 years it has become part of culture and fashion. Believe it or not, of the 40,500 participants in the last 10K I organized, 60 percent were women. It’s about developing a culture. Now you go to every gym, it’s packed and people are fitness conscious. Here in Delhi when people are watching TV you will see a lot more women running around the city on the streets.
You called your rivalry with the Kenyans a peaceful struggle. Did you expect an Indian to break the Kenya Steeplechase at the Commonwealth Games?
No way. I didn’t expect Sable to finish just behind the Kenyan athletes at the Commonwealth Games. I’ve always told the Indians whenever I’ve been here that there is potential and talent to win long distances. Here in India the lifestyle, food and living conditions are similar to Kenya and Ethiopia. That is why an Indian athlete can win a race anywhere. The talent is there, but the problem is that Indians never recognized it. It was more of a mental block. Once they know their skills, believe me, they can win anything. If you watch this race (Sable CG final) it was so close. Sable would have been the winner if he had believed in it. But he must have thought, ‘Oh, it’s the Kenyans and very hard to beat’. But that’s not true.
Now you are a top businessman and a very influential figure. But you keep saying that running was the easiest job you had.
I’m still walking I do my exercises before I go to the office. Running was an easy job. Before breakfast I have to walk and that’s at least 10 km. I must. I used to train 35 km, so even at 49, 10 km is not for me. Why do I do this? Because I have to survive. It’s not for competition. But a day without running is like a day without eating in the life of Haile Gebrselassie.