Ethiopia’s Runners, Among the World’s Elite Athletes

Our introduction to Ethiopia’s running elite occurred happenstance. My wife
was coming out of an elevator at a local hotel/restaurant when Ethiopia’s,
and arguable the world’s, greatest male runner entered the other elevator.
She had a sighting of Kenenisa Bekele, but would not have known he was
anybody or someone had our Ethiopian co-workers not have been so excited and
wide-eyed when they saw him.

“Do you know who that is…that’s Kenenisa Bekele…he beat Gabreselassie at
the Olympics.”

Gabreselassie? That would be THE Haile Gabreselassie, one of the greatest
long-distance runners to ever lace up a pair of running shoes, and
compatriot to Kenenisa. Haile’s name is known throughout every household in
Ethiopia, and Kenenisa is fast becoming Haile’s heir.


Last weekend, the 2005 World Championships in Athletics came to a close
after nine days of competition in Helsinki, Finland. Ethiopia sported a
field of contenders that was expected to do very well in the long-distance
races. But, I doubt if anyone in the land of “13 Months of Sunshine”
expected their hopefuls to run their way to the top of world’s running

A quick recap of the week’s events follows:

In the Men’s 10,000 meter race, it was Bekele taking gold with fellow
Ethiopian Sihine bringing home the silver. The two separated from the pack
by turn two of the final lap and sprinted against each other to the finish
line, Kenenisa winning comfortably.

In the Women’s 10,000 meter, Ethiopia swept the medal stands. Tirunesh
Dibaba won gold, followed by Adere, and Dibaba’s sister, Ejegayehu, winning
the bronze. Even more impressive, in the Women’s 5000 meter, Ethiopia
finished in the top four spots. Dibaba won gold again, followed by Meseret
Defar, Ejegayehu with another bronze and Meselech Melkamu rounding out the

For Tirunesh Dibaba, winning the 5000 was an historic moment. She was the
first woman to ever win the 5000 and 10,000 meter races in the same

Not to forget the Men’s 5000 meter race, it was Sihine again winning a
silver medal while Bekele watched from the sidelines due to an injury.


All week long, Addis was abuzz over the results coming out of Helsinki. TVs
in stores were set to the games. Crowds stood and watched, men and women
alike. You could feel the pride, despite the natural resolve of Ethiopian
shyness and reticence. Ethiopians would never say “we are the best” or “we
kicked their…” I like to believe that they know it, and don’t have to
flaunt it. They may think such things in their private thoughts, but to
verbalize it…well, that wouldn’t be how things are done in Ethiopia.

But, they do celebrate!

We were on our way home from work when we got caught up in a traffic jam on
Debre Zeit Road by Meskal Square. We could see some people running towards
the National Stadium, and then horns started honking and blaring. The
runners, Ethiopia’s heroes, were being paraded through town from Bole
International Airport

Inside the stadium, dignitaries said some words, the runners were showered
with flowers and praise, and the people of Ethiopia filled the stands and
cheered as their winners were introduced to them. The sun was shining out
from behind the rain clouds. A honey golden hue kissed the downtown area.

And those dignitaries…those politicos, using the moment to look good.
However, the Ethiopian people would have nothing of it. They yelled and
screamed to drown out the words of the men recognizing an opportune time
when they saw one. Remembering the 36 students gunned down in a peaceful
protest of election results a few months back, the people were again
protesting with their yells and screams. Except this time they were
expressing the emotion of: let us enjoy this moment for what it is, which
is not a political moment.

The tension subsided, and after more accolades, Bekele and Dibaba were
interviewed for the crowd to hear. Roars and smiles in response to their
responses, a few camera flashes, the flying of Ethiopian flags, and that
warm golden sun after the early afternoon downpours had me feeling that
Ethiopia was the center of the universe, if only for a short time and in the
hearts of a few thousand people.

 (written 21 August 2005)

1 comment on “Ethiopia’s Runners, Among the World’s Elite Athletes

  1. Hi my name is Manuel and i like the way the ethiopiëns run. i also want to run like that it’s always my dream to become a good runner since i have come the industrie.

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