Series17 Feb 2018

World indoor legends – Haile Gebrselassie


Haile Gebresilasie after winning the 3000m at the 2003 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham (© Getty Images)

Our countdown to the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018 continues with our look back at legendary indoor performers. Here, versatile Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie recounts his four world indoor titles.


You started running regularly on the indoor circuit in 1996 setting world records for the 3000m and 5000m. What was your motivation for targeting indoor racing?

I started indoor running because I was not a good cross country runner. In the winter the two options were to run either indoors or cross country. My first indoor race went well over 5000m (he set a world record of 13:10.98 in Sindelfingen) which I thought was fantastic.

The following year you set another world indoor 5000m record (12.59.04) in Stockholm. Why did you opt to compete at the 1997 World Indoor Championships?

I wanted to prove I could be an indoor champion. That was the motivation. I wanted to make history.

Did you have to prepare differently for indoor racing compared to outdoors?

To prepare for indoors I did a lot more speed work. Also, because we had no indoor tracks in Ethiopia, I made sure I practiced often around the curves. My focus also for indoor was to work on carrying the speed around the curves.

Haile Gebresilasie in the 3000m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Paris


What were your memories of the 3000m final in Paris?

It was my first World Indoor hit-out and it was a fantastic one. The race had many big names like the Kenyan Moses Kiptanui (three-time world steeplechase champion) and the race went very quickly from the beginning.

I wanted to be in front, but it wasn’t easy. Indoors, the 3000m is 15 laps, so it is hard to count the laps. I won the race in a time of 7:34.71 (for a victory margin of more than four seconds from silver medallist Paul Bitok), which still stands as a championship record 21 years on.

Two years later you returned to the 1999 World Indoor Championships in Maebashi and attempted the 1500m/3000m double. Why did you go for such an ambitious quest?

The previous year I was trying to break the world indoor 1500m record (he ran 3:31.76 in Stuttgart which still remains second on the world indoor all-time list for the distance behind Hicham El Guerrouj). So I made a switch to the middle-distance. I knew running the 1500m would be a challenge but the 3000m was not so difficult for me because it was my event.

What was the biggest challenge you faced attempting the double?

The schedule was the problem. The event took place over only three days with the 3000m final on Friday, 1500m heats on Saturday and 1500m final on Sunday. The recovery was very short. Thankfully very few athletes (13) entered the 3000m so it became just a straight final. I was also used to running two rounds of the 10,000m at major outdoor championships before 1999 which also helped.

Did you put any specific work into your planning, knowing you faced such a tough schedule?

I did a lot of speed work, which is what probably caused me to be injured in 2000 when I struggled with a lot of achilles tendon injuries. I always advise people that too much speed work can cause injury.

You took control of the 3000m just before two laps to go to ease to a comfortable win (in 7:53.57). What were your thoughts on completing the first half of the double?

I was not too worried about the 3000m. I knew many of my opponents in the race and who would be my main challengers. It was very comfortable. The worry was the 1500m.

Did you feel fatigued going into the 1500m?

In some ways, I had no pressure going into the second race because I had already won a gold medal. This made me look forward to the 1500m.

The 1500m final was run at a brutally quick pace as William Tanui took the field through 800m in 1:54. What were your thoughts?

I remember the Kenyan pushed from the beginning and it was really tough. One of the difficulties I had was that I was mainly a 5000m and 10,000m runner and I did not know the strengths and weaknesses of many in the 1500m. I did not know how strong they would be over the last two laps, one lap or in the last 50 metres. If you watch the last lap, the other Kenyan (Laban Rotich) challenged strongly. It was very close, but I just managed to out-sprint him.

How satisfied were you to complete the double in Maebashi?

It was one of my greatest achievements. When I look back on the memories, it was really nice.

Haile Gebresilasie wins the 3000m at the 2003 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham


In 2003 you returned to compete at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, where you won a third world indoor 3000m title. Why did you make the decision to compete?

I always loved competing in Birmingham. It was always such a great indoor meeting with a great atmosphere. The track was also perfect. To win the world indoor 3000m title again was one of my best (indoor) memories. It was not so easy to prepare for because the previous year I trained for the marathon.

What do you like most about indoor running?

You could never complain about the temperature or the wind, but I liked it most because it was like competing inside a wall; so many people clapping and shouting. I have so many happy memories of competing in places like Birmingham, Stockholm and Stuttgart. The atmosphere and support was always unbelievable and when the music was played too, it was…wow!

Steve Landells for the IAAF