ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Distance running great Haile Gebrselassie is entering politics and may now run for president of Ethiopia — even if his wife is not sure it’s a good idea.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist and multiple world champion in the 10,000 meters told The Associated Press Monday he wants to “reach more people” through politics, a topic most Ethiopians avoid in their restrictive, closely-watched society.
The “big mistake” would be to stay out of politics and miss the chance to do something to help, the famous runner said.
“We are here in our country, Ethiopia. And as long as we live here, we should play our part. We have to sort (out) any problems we have,” Gebrselassie said.
The 40-year-old is used to breaking barriers, having set over two dozen world records in distances ranging from 5,000 meters to the marathon. He said he will run for a seat in parliament as an independent candidate in 2015, a big deal in Ethiopia where there is just one opposition member in parliament.
The next presidential election in September is probably “too soon,” but he said he was considering a future run for that largely ceremonial post so he could use it to unite and promote his East African country.
Gebrselassie is not completely new to this game, either, having helped set up a group called the Elders Council, which brokered peace between the ruling party and opponents following postelection violence in 2005 that left hundreds dead and led to opposition leaders being jailed. Gebrselassie’s influence helped free them.
Gebrselassie said that while his wife and other family members are wary of Ethiopian politics, he thinks it’s an important next move to make.
“Some people are advising me against it. Others say it’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “I respect all opinions . I believe as long as my intentions are positive, you have to support it.”
Asked if he would accept a surprise election to the presidency in September, an office which is voted on by the two elective houses, he replied swiftly and with an impish grin: “Do you have information I don’t?”
Gebrselassie has huge draw at home. He has represented Ethiopia at the world’s top track events and biggest marathons for nearly two decades, building in that time a reputation as one of the greatest distance runners ever.
“He (Haile) is my most favorite Ethiopian and he is much more than an athlete,” Hallelujah Lulie, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, wrote on Facebook. “He can easily become a very skilled statesman. Go Haile.”
Gebrselassie also is a successful businessman, with a cinema and a luxurious resort among his interests.
Despite some doubts expressed by Ethiopia’s opposition parliamentary member, Girma Seifu, that the athlete could make any meaningful contribution to politics as an independent candidate, the runner is set on his next challenge.
“In sport, you cannot be on top forever. One day you have to slow down. My time (running) is almost over,” he said. “(It’s) a big mistake … to say let me avoid this (politics).”