Africa's athletes should script their departureBy LEE MWITI | Monday, November 8 2010 at 17:59
When is the right time to leave? When you are at the height of your powers, or when you sense a decline and begin losing power—by when it could be already too late? If you watched marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie’s emotional farewell after the 41st New York Marathon, it was hard not to be moved. His emotion was raw, at times struggling for composure.
"I have had no discussions with my manager, with anybody else, but I have discussed it with myself and I think it’s better to stop here," the tearful Gebrselassie told a shocked press conference after he dropped out of the race with a knee problem. "I don’t want to complain anymore after this [race], which means it’s better to stop here. It didn’t work. Each time I have a problem like this [injury] it’s hard, and to complain again and again, is bad.
"I have no complaints. It’s better not to complain anymore," was his heartrending farewell, before hobbling out of the room--and out of a career that has spanned 18 memorable years, 27 world records and a pitcherful of world and Olympic titles. Did it really have to come to this—that one of the greatest long-distance athletes the world has seen left the stage with a whimper? His legacy is not in doubt and he will go down as arguably the greatest distance athlete of modern times—but it all could have ended so much better. There are those who say Gebrselassie’s perfect exit moment would have been following his world marathon record set in 2008, where he, for the second time, eclipsed Kenyan Paul Tergat's mark set in 2003.
Leaving at the right time is a lesson Tergat has taken well. Now 41, he is effectively retired and has enthusiastically taken to his role as a goodwill ambassador of the World Food Programme. Ironically, he was before Sunday’s New York race presented with the Abebe Bikila Award, presented to a runner who has made outstanding contribution to distance running. It was a fitting end to the only man who has been the recent equal of long-time rival and friend Gebrselassie.
The experiences of Gebrselassie and German Formula One champion Michael Schumacher—who has this season bungled his comeback—could be poignant lessons to Africa’s athletes, many of whom have dilly-dallied at the scene a race too long, reluctant to leave the warm bask of the limelight afforded by the world stage. Mozambique’s “Maputo Express” Maria de Lurdes Mutola had it all, picking up gold medals by the truckloads in a career that lasted an astonishing 21 years. Her greatest crowning glory was the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, where she at last picked up a gold medal that had eluded her in the previous editions.
But the sight of Kenyan teenager Pamela Jelimo effortlessly swatting her aside at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a moment of both ambivalence and huge significance. It was at that time that the 800-metre baton was acknowledged to have changed hands to a new generation of teenagers (who now include the controversial South African runner, Caster Semenya) although Mutola’s career had been in decline since 2004. Mutola remains arguably the finest female 800m runner, ranked by medal haul and consistency: the 2008 games were her sixth successive Olympics. But how much more burnished would her credentials have been had she exited after her stellar season of 2003, when she became the first winner of the IAAF’s $1 million dollar jackpot—at the time given to athletes who remained undefeated in the body’s Golden League series.
Others have however known when to leave the races. Morocco’s Hicham El-Guerrouj exited emotionally after winning both the 800m and 1,500m double at the 2004 Athens Olympics—the first man in 80 years to do so. His sporting achievements are legendary—further embellished by his well-timed retirement, such that he holds a near-mythical aura in middle-distance running. And the recognition has been in droves, including as a Unicef goodwill ambassador and several political medals—a fitting last lap for the man known as “The King” and holder of three current world records.
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