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Can Ethiopia's Best Runner Become Its Best Politician?

Arguably the greatest long-distance runner ever, Haile Gebrselassie is now aiming for a spot in Ethiopia's parliament.
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A list of Haile Gebrselassie's accomplishments reads like some sort of comic book distance running superhero: 27 world records spanning two decades in disciplines ranging from 2,000 meters to the marathon. Amazingly, the Ethiopian continued to improve with age. In September 2008, a 35-year-old Gebrselassie won the Berlin Marathon in 2:03:59 (an absurd 4:43.7 per mile), breaking his own record by 27 seconds. Four days before his 40th birthday, he won the Vienna City half marathon in a little over an hour.

Haile Gebrselassie was born to run.

In the near future, however, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and four-time 10,000 meter world champion will enter a more difficult race. Gebrselassie, who retired from running soon after suffering an injury in the 2010 New York City Marathon but returned after healing, promised to run as an independent candidate for a parliament seat.

A lot of messages in the news about me going into politics. Yes, I want to be in the parliament in 2015 to help my country to move forward.

— Haile Gebrselassie (@HaileGebr) July 10, 2013

While Gebrselassie says he may eventually attempt to get elected president of the East African country, gaining entry into parliament would be an achievement in itself. Members of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) control 499 of the 547 seats, and there is only one opposition MP. The fame of the runner, who owns a hotel, cinema, and car dealership, and runs two schools, could help alter the landscape of Ethiopian politics, which many believe is a corrupt system.

To his credit, Gebrselassie has no doubts about the uphill battle ahead:

In Ethiopia we are still a long way behind. You cannot change this country in two to three years, it might take 30. But we dream to be different. My idea is to reach more people, communicate with more people than ever before. I am known as an athlete, but what else? I don’t want to limit myself in only this way. I became a runner from nowhere. I was nobody. If you looked at me 20 years ago, I was just another person, but now I work with over 1,000 people. I have seen how it happens.

Nor is the athlete-turned-politician a particularly unusual model. There are manyslideshows on the Internet devoted to the subject, including—not surprisingly—an entire cottage industry on Bleacher Report. Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan played football in college. Princeton University and New York Knicks star Bill Bradley spent 18 years as a senator from New Jersey before unsuccessfully running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. Former Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson is currently the mayor of Sacramento. Stretch the definition of athlete a bit, and it's possible to include former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse "The Body" Ventura.

Track and field has a few politicians as well, most notably Jim Ryun. He was a three-time Olympian and world record holder in the 800, 1,500, and mile run. He then held Kansas' 2nd District between 1996 and 2007.

But perhaps the closest parallel to Gebrselassie is George Weah, the Liberian-born soccer player who played for clubs including Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, and Manchester City home. Weah, the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995 and African Player of the Century, ran for president of his country in 2005. His massive success as a soccer player and huge stardom carried him to a victory in the first round of voting—besting 20 others—but he failed to defeat the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the second round. Critics cited his lack of education, a problem he attempted to rectify by earning his high school diploma in 2007. It didn't help, however, as Weah lost a vice presidential bid in 2011.

Gebrselassie, arguably a bigger star in his country than Weah was in his, will face similar challenges, but he has a better base of support. It will be a long run, frequently uphill. But that's nothing new.