Mike Rowbottom @ITG

Shortly after Ethiopia’s legendary running champion Haile Gebrselassie had been elected as head of his country’s athletics Federation in November 2016, the President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Sebastian Coe, made his satisfaction very clear.

Coe told Kenya-based Citizen.co.ke: "What Federation anywhere in the world would not want somebody with the athletics credentials and someone who has gone on to achieve outside the sport?

"Who would not want that help, that expertise and that guidance within their Federation?"

Well now we know the answer. The Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF). That’s who.

This week’s news that the multiple world record breaker who retired three years ago having won two Olympic and eight world golds had resigned his position as President, two years into his four-year term came as a shock to most within the sport.

But not so much of a shock to those who have been in regular contact with this iconic 45-year-old athlete and businessman. Given his recent experiences, you could probably add the word "politician" to that list.

Haile Gebrselassie, pictured after winning the election to become President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation - a position from which he resigned this week ©Global Sports Communications
Haile Gebrselassie, pictured after winning the election to become President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation - a position from which he resigned this week ©Global Sports Communications

When he took up his position he said his biggest challenge since he had retired from competition had been working in a team and not being able to set personal goals.

"What I learnt is patience," he maintained. "A marathon is like two hours-plus of running. The 10,000 metres is less than 30 minutes. The same thing when I switch from running to business - I learn more patience."

On Sunday (November 11), however, that patience ran out. Gebrselassie was not present in Sululta, south of the capital Addis Ababa, when a group of athletes protested over a lack of facilities and services from the Federation, refusing to shake hands with officials.

But when he heard about it, he quit.

"This is the point of no return," said Gebrselassie at a press conference to announce his departure.

"Some individuals were doing their best to manipulate the values of EAF.

"The efforts of these parties became fruitful yesterday at the National Cross Country Championships, when they used these young athletes to push their demands.

"What happened yesterday was unprofessional and harmful to Ethiopian athletics.

"Instead of getting myself into an unnecessary argument, I decide to resign from my position."

His actions were clearly not motivated by offence at the idea of protest per se.

Five months before his election, Gebrselassie was among around 100 protesters who descended on the EAF offices to protest about a number of issues including the Federation’s Rio 2016 selection policy.

There has been a long history of discord in Ethiopia between the athletes and the administration responsible for them, with many examples where the main motivation of the Federation and its supporters appeared to be that of bringing high-flying, foreign-based athletes back down to earth.

The decision not to pick the 34-year-old three-times Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele for the Rio 2016 marathon proved the catalyst which energised the protest march of athletes and ex-athletes including Gebrselassie to the EAF HQ.

Bekele called the decision "unjust" and criticised the EAF for their "biased" selection criteria, adding: "The Federation set a criteria they knew very well would rule me out."

He added: "There is a group in the Federation that knows nothing about athletics."

Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia's multiple world and Olympic champion, said after a dispute with the EAF in 2016:
Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia's multiple world and Olympic champion, said after a dispute with the EAF in 2016: "There is a group in the Federation that knows nothing about athletics" ©Getty Images

Gebrselassie said during the protest that he could not understand the decision not to take one of Ethiopia’s best distance runners to the Games.

"As you know Kenenisa is a well-experienced athlete," he told the African News Agency.

"He knows how to handle pressure and he knows how to win a race."

Soon after he had won nine of the 15 votes to beat two other candidates to the Presidency - with incumbent EAF President Alebachew Nigusse not standing for re-election - Gebrselassie paid his first official visit to the EAF headquarters to get those famous pattering feet under the table.

"I went into the office to meet the people I will be working with and talk to them about their experiences over the last few years," he said.

"I am just beginning to realise how big a job this is - it is going to take a lot of my time and attention."

Even though Gebrselassie is a highly successful businessman with hotels and a coffee farming business, he gave that time and attention as he sought to change not just a Federation but its culture.

"One of the first things I want to do is to help establish and strengthen regional centres so that athletes will not have to move to live and train in Addis Ababa as they now do to become part of the national set-up," he told insidethegames.

That’s an idea that suits athletes. An idea that suits their local coaches. But it’s not an idea best calculated to appeal to established federation coaches working at the traditional hub of the operation…

With Ethiopia being one of the nations on the IAAF anti-doping watch list, Gebrselassie has taken on the problem head on, insisting soon after he took office that doping offenders should face a life ban and later supporting the idea of jail sentences.

"We need to be strict," he told The Independent.

"There must be a tough punishment - when we do this, the rest of the world needs to be strong too."

"We need to have honest athletes that forget about shortcuts; ones who believe in sweating, not taking.

"When athletes take drugs they may make money in the short -term, but in the long term, when they think about what they’ve done, they will regret it.

"They are directly cheating money out of the pockets of other athletes.

"I don’t want to support people who have this evil in them."

In July this year, Ethiopia – along with Kenya – headed a list of nations newly categorised by the IAAF as being most at risk of doping.

The problem is not believed to be so widespread in Ethiopia as in its neighbouring country, although doping products have reportedly been easily available in Addis Ababa.

Earlier this year, under Gebrselassie’s guidance, the EAF launched a major education programme among young athletes to warn them of the dangers of doping.

Meanwhile Gebrselassie has been changing personnel – bringing in new anti-doping administrators who have World Anti-Doping Agency approval, and also introducing recently retired athletes into the federation, in accord with the principles enthusiastically espoused by Coe.

That’s an idea that suits athletes and ex-athletes. But it’s not an idea best calculated to appeal to established Federation administrators…

"Often when you would speak to Haile he would say, 'I feel like I’m getting a headache!'" a regular contact of his told me.

Hardly surprising given that he seems to have been banging his head against a brick wall for much of the past two years.

Gebrselassie insisted this week that his decision to leave was "personal" – but it was a personal decision prompted by political circumstances. It seemed that there was significant opposition to him, his independence. His attempted changes.

Haile Gebreselassie runs free to win the 2000 Olympics 10,000m gold - but his experiences as EAF President have left hiim feeling as if he has weights tied to his waist...©Getty Images
Haile Gebreselassie runs free to win the 2000 Olympics 10,000m gold - but his experiences as EAF President have left hiim feeling as if he has weights tied to his waist...©Getty Images

For a man used to running free, the politics clearly felt like a weight tied to his waist. And there was also a suggestion from some of the things he said that he was less than enamoured of the attitude of some young athletes who expected a lot but performed not a lot.

Let’s just recall at this point that Gebrselassie was one of 10 children in the often troubled region of Oromiya, and that as a child growing up on a farm he used to run 10 kilometres to school every morning, and the same back every evening, leadling to a distinctive running posture in which his left arm was held in crooked fashion, as if still holding his school books.

"If they are not happy, it is better for me to resign and let them do what they want," he is reported as saying. "I can spend my time much better. It’s no big deal."

Gebrselassie is unlikely to be spending much time twiddling his thumbs. He employs more than 2,000 people in his businesses.

His coffees meanwhile, which can be found under his estate name, Haile Estate - for example Sun Dried Ethiopian Haile Estate Coffee - are now being distributed by Starbucks Reserve.

If Gebrselassie does still harbour any wider political ambitions -  as with Coe when he retired,  many predicted towering prospects for him in that field - all this will doubtless have been a very useful and fruitful experience.

Even if it may not feel like that right now.