May 11, 2004 at 4:15 pm #1504
By JERE LONGMAN [New York Times]
Published: May 11, 2004
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, May 10 – Even blank cartridges for a starter’s pistol were not to be used extravagantly at the national track and field championships here in one of the world’s poorest nations. Until the concluding session of the five-day meet Saturday, races began with an official standing behind the runners, where they could not see him, holding a flag aloft and yelling, “Go.”
Sometimes the competitors heard the command. Frequently, they did not or grew uncertain, starting, stopping and starting again. False starts were declared regularly.
Ethiopia’s national stadium lacks a working scoreboard, sophisticated timing devices, computerized results and starting blocks for each of the eight lanes. Competitors shared one javelin and one unyielding pole in the pole vault; the winning jump fell a quarter-inch short of 11 feet – more than nine feet short of the world record.
A number of athletes wore no shoes, and many had never before run on the stadium’s rubberized track, the only all-weather oval in a country of 66 million people. This paucity of equipment and expertise, though, did not dampen the celebratory mood. Distance running is the specialty here, not sprints and field events. As the competition ended, some of the world’s most breathtaking runners circled the worn track, while a band played in the infield. Spectators crowded into the stadium, and younger competitors from the country’s 11 regions applauded, sang and danced in the grandstand.
Despite having fewer elite runners and paltry resources, Ethiopia has outstripped its East African neighbor Kenya as the greatest distance-running country at major international competitions. The reasons include a desire to escape poverty, a temperate climate and high altitude, and the tight control exerted by the government on runners’ trips out of the country. The result is that while Kenyans continue to dominate individual marathons in places like New York City and Boston, the Ethiopians have begun winning more team medals at the Olympics and at world track championships. At the world cross-country championships in March, Ethiopia staggered its opponents by winning 14 of 18 available medals. Another medal haul is expected at the Olympics in Athens in August.
“We don’t need a starter’s gun,” said Haile Gebrselassie, a two-time men’s Olympic champion at 10,000 meters (6.2 miles), who has set 17 world records and is considered by many the most versatile runner in history. “Guns are only for fighting.”
Beyond sport, Gebrselassie and several of the other top Ethiopian stars appear to have a strong sense of social responsibility. They participate in H.I.V./AIDS awareness programs, invest in schools and business enterprises and even affect the way the roles of women are perceived. The runners represent a fierce national pride in Ethiopia.
These stars also provide the most visible examples of achievement in a nation considered among the four poorest in the world, where the gross domestic product is $110 per capita, and the backbone of the economy, subsistence farming, is vulnerable to cycles of drought and famine. A mural of Gebrselassie on a building near the stadium exhorts, “You can.”
“They are sportsmen and women, committed ambassadors who have made it in life,” Brook Hailu, Ethiopia’s deputy ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview. “Most of them are on a sound financial basis. They are positively engaged in investment and trade activities. Our image in the 70’s and 80’s was down the drain, synonymous with poverty and drought. Now they play a role in giving us a good positive image.”
When Ethiopia’s small team of 26 runners returned home from the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, with eight medals, including four golds, an estimated one million people greeted them here in the capital during a jubilant parade from the airport.
The social event of last summer in Addis Ababa was the June wedding of the reigning men’s Olympic marathon champion, Gezahegne Abera, to Elfenesh Alemu, who finished second in the women’s race at the Boston Marathon last month.
The wedding was at the national stadium, and the train on the bride’s dress circled the quarter-mile track and was carried by scores of schoolchildren.
The event also served to raise awareness in a country where 2.2 million people suffer from H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, or from full-blown AIDS, and where one million children have been orphaned by the disease, government officials said. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the Addis Ababa residents who die between the ages of 20 and 54 succumb to AIDS-related illnesses.
The bride’s train was printed with red AIDS ribbons and was sectioned into 250 pieces that were signed by the V.I.P. guests with safe-sex pledges. The pieces were then handed out to schoolchildren for display in classrooms.
“We wanted to help young people and students be aware of the epidemic in this part of the world,” Abera said. “We know we have problems in Ethiopia, and we take it as our responsibility to help whatever problems we are facing.”
He and his wife have also contributed money to AIDS orphans and to famine relief efforts. Derartu Tulu, the two-time Olympic champion at 10,000 meters, helps to support an orphanage. She has built a hotel in the Arsi region south of here and has invested in a sorghum and wheat farm. Gebrselassie has built two elementary schools outside of Addis Ababa and has constructed two office buildings in the capital, one of which includes a cafe, cinema and health club.
Many African runners experience an anonymous brilliance in the West. They are so great and numerous that they can be perceived as interchangeable, faceless. Gebrselassie, 32, has transcended this obscurity with his rarefied skill, charisma and openness. He has become fluent in English and has used his stature and sense of accountability to take a visible role in social policy. He is perhaps the country’s most popular person, and with an income that reaches $1 million a year in prize money and endorsements, one of the richest.
In recent days, Gebrselassie has moved into a palatial home in the hills above Addis Ababa, with marble floors, a swimming pool and Italian fixtures. The house is surrounded by high walls and an electric fence. It is on a steep road in a wealthy neighborhood, just above other houses made of mud or corrugated tin.
Gebrselassie, his wife, Alem, and their three daughters could easily afford a life of splendid isolation, but he employs 260 people in his real estate company and other endeavors. He plans to build more schools and has begun campaigning for higher prices for coffee, Ethiopia’s main export, while also seeking to expand European markets for teff, the indigenous grain. His country faces a bleak future if more than half the population remains illiterate and AIDS expands in dispiriting numbers, Gebrselassie said.
“When I help people, I help myself,” he said. “I can’t change a country as a single person, but I have to do my part.”
A Political Future?
He may seek political office after he retires, Gebrselassie said, and some believe that he could one day become Ethiopia’s president. Perhaps not, he said, because people have only a fleeting interest in athletes. Still, he thinks of things that he would like to change.
“Maybe if I become president, the next morning everyone will start to blame Haile Gebrselassie,” he said, speaking of himself in the third person. “I will tell everyone they have to work and go to school. If one will not work, he will be a criminal.”
Gebrselassie’s own success has become a contagion, inspiring other runners just as his athletic forebears once motivated him. Abebe Bikila won Ethiopia’s and Africa’s first Olympic gold medal when he finished first in the marathon as he ran barefoot through Rome at the 1960 Olympics. Bikila won the marathon again at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and his countryman Mamo Wolde won the event at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Gebrselassie listened on the radio as Miruts Yifter won the 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) and 10,000 meters at the Moscow Games in 1980.
When Gebrselassie and Tulu won the men’s and women’s 10,000 meters at the 2000 Games in Sydney, a teenager named Kenenisa Bekele watched on television. He lived in the Arsi region in the southern highlands, where his heroes had also grown up. He was not a serious runner then, but a teacher told him he had talent.
“I was so happy that they won the Olympics for Ethiopia,” Bekele said. “I thought, maybe for the future, I’d like to try running.”
Now, at 21, he has become a multiple winner of the world cross-country championships. And last summer, he defeated his idol, Gebrselassie, to win the 10,000 meters at the world track championships in Paris.
Olympic victories for Ethiopia have also carried social implications. When Tulu was a girl in the village of Bekoji, her mother discouraged her from running. It was taboo for a girl to turn in her skirt for a pair of shorts, Tulu said.
“She didn’t want people to say that her daughter had gone crazy,” Tulu said.
But the daughter persisted, and when Tulu won the 10,000 meters at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, she became the first black African woman to capture a gold medal. After giving birth to a daughter, Tulu again won the 10,000 at the 2000 Olympics. She could win a third time in Athens.
Now, she said, “it is no problem” for women in her village to become runners. Another woman from Bekoji, Fatuma Roba, won the marathon at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Two younger cousins of Tulu’s, Tirunesh and Ejigayehu Dibaba, are expected to challenge for Olympic medals this summer.
A shrine to Tulu’s victory in Barcelona sits outside the national stadium. While younger runners are inspired by her, Tulu and others said, women in the larger Ethiopian society, often marginalized, have also gained resolve from her accomplishments.
“There are people in Ethiopia working for respect of women’s rights,” Tulu said. “I can’t say that my success has helped them, but it has helped women to fight, to become what they want.”
Ethiopia has developed only about 60 elite runners, compared with several hundred by Kenya, according to running experts. The Ethiopian Olympic Committee receives $35,000 a year from the government, and in an Olympic year, corporate sponsorships can push the budget to $230,000, Assefa Mamo, president of the Olympic Committee, said. In comparison, the United States Olympic Committee’s annual budget is $125 million.
Bureaucratic meddling and corruption have sometimes impeded Ethiopian success, according to Ethiopians and Westerners with knowledge of the track system. But 13 years after a brutal Communist regime was ousted, and four years after a border dispute with neighboring Eritrea ended, Ethiopia’s running program is thriving.
Running is a national pastime in a country where the altitude – Addis Ababa sits at 7,300 feet – helps to increase oxygen-carrying capacity. The Ethiopian diet consists heavily of teff, which is rich in easily assimilated protein and has more iron, calcium and potassium than wheat.
While the Kenyan runners, for instance, frequently run in Europe and the United States, Ethiopians concentrate primarily on major international track championships. To leave the country, runners must obtain exit visas, which are closely controlled by the government’s track federation.
A life of deprivation and a willingness to endure suffering also seem to play a role in accepting and completing the exhaustive training for elite distance running, Gebrselassie and other athletes said. As a boy, he said, he ran to and from school and spent up to three hours on sojourns to gather water during the dry season.
“I’ve been running since I was 4 or 5,” Gebrselassie said. “For us, life was a kind of sport.”
Runners who show promise in regional competitions are signed and paid salaries by clubs representing the prison police, a bank association, an electric company and a cement factory.
The first trip to run in Addis Ababa can be unnerving though. Running barefoot, Berhane Aregaui, who is 21, won a regional 5,000-meters competition at the national stadium on Thursday. For the first time, she competed on a synthetic track and before a large crowd.
“I was scared of the audience, but the track was fine,” Aregaui said.
Success on the track can bring a dramatic change to modest lives. Three years ago, Tirunesh Dibaba was living without electricity in a two-room home in the village of Bekoji. After completing sixth grade, she moved to Addis Ababa to join a sister and Tulu, her cousin. But Dibaba said she showed up late for seventh-grade registration and, unable to continue in school, dedicated herself to running. Last summer in Paris, at 17, she became the youngest track athlete to win a world championship, finishing first in the 5,000 meters.
For her victory, Dibaba won $60,000 in prize money. Now she and her sister, Ejigayehu, another promising runner, own a sport utility vehicle and rent a four-bedroom house, where they care for two younger sisters. Soon, they will move into a new house built from track earnings. Meselech Melkamu, 19, the women’s world junior cross-country champion, can now afford a maid to cook and clean in her rented house.
“My life has changed a lot,” Melkamu said. “I am not a burden on my family. It is important to manage on my own. I want to be like Haile, to be famous and win many races.”
If she does, Melkamu, too, will gain her place of honor at the national stadium. Three sets of Olympic rings sit above the backstretch. Individual rings bear the likenesses of Ethiopia’s Olympic champions. Inside other rings are question marks that ask, who will be the next champion? The answer could come soon in Athens.
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