From the imposing three-storey building in suburban Top View Estate, one has a panoramic view of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
A first-time visitor to this palatial home could be excused for thinking he is at the White House — the residence of America’s president — or a UN headquarters.
Complete with a well manicured garden, splashing fountain, stone lions and two latest models of Mercedes Benz in the garage, the residence of Haile Gebrselassie, the famed Ethiopian long-distance runner, conjures up images of paradise.
But always the gentleman, Gebrselassie is rather modest about it.
Asked why he chose to have this architectural wonder for a home, he says: “I wanted to lead a good life.”
Designed by Getaneh Retta, the top Ethiopian architect, it took three years to build and set Gebrselassie some $1.5 million (Sh112 million) back.
But the cost is probably nothing compared to the architectural genius, style, decor, landscape and the interiors that went into it.
The front door opens to the sight of beauty you would only associate with a sports museum.
There are glass cabinets filled with jerseys, medals, trophies and shoes that the athletics legend has worn and won since becoming a running sensation more than a decade ago.
“It is my wife Alem who came up with the idea of the glass cabinets,” said Gebrselassie, pointing at one of the medals.
Emperor Haile Selassie stares blankly from a photograph on the wall.
“No! I am not related to Haile Selassie. I only admire and love him,” says Gebrselassie.
I had the privilege of being among Gebrselassie’s guests on December 13. Others invited to the palatial home were officials of the Great Ethiopian Run, an annual race held every November, a UK journalist and Pauline Korikwiang, a budding Kenyan runner and a former 2006 World Junior Champion in Fukuoka, Japan.
Gebrselassie is Korikwiang’s mentor under the G4S 4teen, a sports programme that supports a group of young aspiring athletes around the world.
Gebrselassie, a G4S global ambassador, mentors each athlete to achieve their sporting goal. Everyone appeared amazed as our host guided us on a tour around the home, carefully looking at every feature, from the well-decorated granite floor to the chandeliers.
“This is my first time here. I had only heard about Haile’s house and how fabulous it is! Everybody I have met has always said their dream is to come to Haile’s house, and this is a dream come true for me,” said Daria Zebrowska, who works with a charity in Addis Ababa.
Her friend Elaine Boyd craned her neck to see some drawings of cattle on a balcony. It was the Scot’s first time, too, at the celebrated residence.
“I am overwhelmed by Haile’s hospitality. He is quite friendly and welcoming,” Boyd remarked. The house is decorated like the set of a TV soap opera with paintings on the walls.
A 42-inch flat screen dominates one of the lounges filled with black leather sofa sets. The three lounges resemble the blue, red and green rooms at the White House.
Right by the door, a three legged grand piano stands with a photo of one of his three children perched on top.
A red carpet covers the shiny granite floor and snakes up the stairway to the indoor balcony. The indoor balcony has two sets of chairs.
A shield, two spears, a sword and three old shotguns are glued to the wall, diagonal to the indoor balcony.
In the reception area, jolly Gebrselassie smiles broadly as he serves drinks to his guests. His wife Alem helped to set up the buffet table in the dining room as their children played in the garden.
Wearing a light blue sports jacket, white track trousers and sports shoes, the host moved around ensuring that his guests were having a good time.
A chat with Gebrselassie revealed that the hospitality industry is his other passion.
The runner, who owns 10 buildings in Addis Ababa, said a five-star hotel he is building should be complete mid next year. The four-storey hotel on an expansive land will be named Haile Hotel.
“The hotel is situated in Awassa area. Many tourists who have gone there have complained of lack of a hotel. Therefore, I looked around and found land next to a beautiful lake,” he said.
Korikwiang, the Kenyan girl who was visiting his mentor, said she was inspired by Gebrselassie’s lifestyle as well.
“I am happy to come to his house today. This is not only an opportunity for me but a privilege. Not many athletes can lead this life,” said Korikwiang, who only recently relocated to Nairobi from her village in West Pokot.
With earnings from running, Korikwiang is already building a stone-walled house.
This was the third time Korikwiang and Gebrselassie were meeting under the G4S 4teen programme.
Earlier in the morning that day, the 19-year-old runner and her mentor had trained together at Entoto Mountain, about 13 km east of Addis Ababa’s central business district.
Every day Gebrselassie wakes up at 5 a.m. to make it in time for the morning training session at Entoto Mountains where he runs for at least two hours before he drives back home for a shower.
He reports to his HaileAlem business premises by 9 a.m. and works until 2 p.m. when he heads to the gym for the second training session.
Though his business has grown by leaps and bounds, from real estate to motor trade, he says his training schedule comes first and that he plans to run for the next 20 years.
“One of the mistakes athletes make is to plan for retirement. You should not plan to retire like some athletes do, after this or that Olympic games, yet their careers are promising,” he said. “I don’t put a date; it comes by its own, next year or even tomorrow.”
Gebrselassie, who has broken 26 records, says he trains seven days in a week and goes to church once in a month. Sunday is a normal working day for him.
The big question that has always been on the lips of his fans is what kind of a life he leads. He denies claims that he is a vegetarian and says injera, a large spongy pancake made of teff flour, is his favourite.
Away from the glare of the track and the podium, he occasionally spares time for his family at home and often has a moment to play the piano.
The medal which he won in the 2000 Sydney Olympics is the one he cherishes most. He has also safely stored the first Adidas sports shoes that he was given by his brother in 1989 in one of the cabinets.
“The 2000 Sydney Olympic medal, between Paul Tergat and I, is my favourite. It looks like Paul won that race; we were too close to each other. He was in top shape, the only thing is that it was not his day,” he said amid roaring laughter.
“Paul later beat me in one of the marathons in London.”
He says he has enormous respect for Tergat and the perception of a cold relationship between Kenyan long-distance runners and their Ethiopian counterparts due to their rivalries on the track is a misconception.
Ethiopians and Kenyans
“Ethiopians need Kenyans and Kenyans need Ethiopians. Without them, I cannot just hold the position I do in athletics. This is sport, if someone thinks I hate Kenyans, or Kenyans hate Ethiopians, that’s wrong,” he said as his cell phone buzzed to life.
In this year’s Beijing Olympic games, Gebrselassie managed position six in the 10,000 metres and pulled out of the marathon citing high pollution level, which he said was likely to worsen his asthmatic condition.
“I went to Beijing in February and saw how the weather looked like. It was more of a mess, and I thought it was difficult to run there due to my asthma problem. I am all right now; for the last four years, my doctors have been treating me,” he said.
All this time guests sat on various seats stationed in the three lounges. The flash of the camera was continuous across the room as guest after guest posed for a photo with the revered celebrity.
It is around 4 p.m. and most of the guests have started to leave. Gebrselassie has to dash to the gym. He climbs upstairs and comes back with a bag hanging from his shoulder.
“It was great meeting you,” he says as he opens the door to his car. He has to prepare for the Dubai race next month.