Retired running legend Haile Gebrselassie on Thursday backed compatriot Kenenisa Bekele to break the world marathon record, dubbing his omission from the Rio Olympics a “big mistake”.
Gebrselassie, considered one of the greatest distance runners of all time, was last month elected president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation on a four-year term.
The 43-year-old had been a vocal critic of the Ethiopian federation, accusing its leaders of “incompetence” in preparing for the Rio Olympics.
Gebrselassie, a double 10 000m Olympic gold medallist and multiple marathon champion, took part in a demonstration against the federation’s selection criteria and its decision to drop triple Olympic gold medallist Bekele from the team after he failed to make the qualifying time.
“It was really a big mistake,” he said of Bekele’s absence. “We should have put him in the team for Rio. He should have been in Rio.”
Bekele missed the world record by six seconds in winning this year’s Berlin Marathon, the ex-Olympic 5 000m and 10 000m champion crossing the finish line in an official time of 2hr 03min 03sec – just short of Dennis Kimetto‘s world record of 2:02:57 set in the German capital in 2014.
Bekele’s time was an Ethiopian national record and he took two minutes off his personal best.
“No matter what, (the world championships in) London is coming,” said Gebrselassie said. “He almost broke the record this year. It was very close, he didn’t realise, he didn’t see the clock!
“You will see, either in Dubai or one of the coming marathons, I think there’s a chance for Kenenisa.”
Gebrselassie sidestepped one issue that reared its head at the Rio Games, when marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa staged a dramatic protest when winning the silver medal.
Lilesa, who finished second behind Kenyan favourite Eliud Kipchoge in Rio, crossed his arms as he finished the marathon in protest against the Ethiopian government‘s crackdown on political dissent.
He repeated the gesture during the race’s medal ceremony, saying he was afraid to go back to his homeland following his protest “against the government’s attitude regarding Oromo people”, one of two main ethnic groups in Ethiopia.
Gebrselassie insisted, however, that it was not something he was willing to comment on.
“I have to separate between sport and politics, I’m telling you,” he said. “Sport is something, politics is another thing.”