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An Ethiopian obsession that runs deep

By Alex Capstick
BBC News, Addis Ababa

Ethiopian runner Birhane Adere reaches the finish line during the Dubai Marathon 2008
Ethiopia has a deep well of distance running talent
Ethiopia is staging its first major international athletics event - the African Athletics Championships - giving sports fans a rare chance to see close up the athletes carrying the country's hopes for glory at the Beijing Olympics. The BBC's Alex Capstick went to Addis Ababa to investigate why running is Ethiopia's national obsession.

It's 0630 as runners gather in the forests overlooking Addis Ababa. There's not a breath of wind, and at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres the air is thin.

These are considered perfect training conditions for endurance runners, and virtually every day of the year thousands of them pitch up here and spend an hour or two pounding the rutted dirt tracks.

Getaneh Tessema is in charge of the group I'm with and says he chooses the area because "it is very quiet, it is not so hilly, flat, and you know running in the forest is fantastic, we like it".

Every morning in the heart of Addis Ababa knots of runners are strung out over the cracked steps of Meskel Square

He has spent the last decade on the lookout for future champions and his current group includes members of the Ethiopian marathon team.

"The runners are mostly from the countryside, and in the countryside most children they go to school on foot - like every day five, 10 kilometres, and you know, nobody knows that, but that's training.

"Ethiopians are light and are also hard-working and they like to fight - and I think that's the reason why they are so good."

Dream of glory

Ethiopia's obsession with running can be traced back to 1960, when the barefooted Abebe Bikili was a surprise winner of the Olympic marathon in Rome.

Haile Gebrselassie
Haile Gebrselassie is idolised in Ethiopia
The success of Ethiopian athletes continued. Haile Gebrselassie remembers listening on his father's radio to events at the Moscow games in 1980, when Miruts Yifter won two gold medals.

"I was seven, I had a chance you know to follow his winning. I wanted to be like a Miruts Yifter and my dream was to be like him."

Haile Gebrselassie is now considered the finest distance runner of all time.

His collection of honours includes two Olympic 10,000 metre titles and multiple world records. He's idolised in Ethiopia, the busy road I'm standing on is named after him. And everybody wants to be like Haile.

"It's amazing when they follow the good steps of Haile Gebrselassie. Let them follow my good things the next generation has to improve"

'Women stay in home'

The Entoto Mariam church is located in the hills above the capital. It is in another area frequented by groups of runners, and world and Olympic medals have been deposited in the church museum.

For a woman in Ethiopia, running is very difficult... she only work in house or is going to the school - everything is for men
Meseret Defar
Olympic 5,000m champion

My guide tells me Ethiopia's deeply religious athletes promise to leave them here, or in other places of worship, on display for everyone to see. Among them is one won by Derartu Tulu.

She became the first black African woman to claim an Olympic title when she was first in the 10,000 metres at the Barcelona Games in 1992. Her performance proved to be an inspiration to other women in Ethiopia.

They include the reigning Olympic 5,000 metre champion Meseret Defar who I went to meet at her villa in Addis Ababa.

Like Derartu Tulu, she's been a role model to young women seeking a life outside the traditional confines of the home, although the effect hasn't been the same across the country.

"The women stay in the house," she says. "For a woman in Ethiopia, running is very difficult. In Addis Ababa, no problem, it is very good but outside, the woman only works in [the] house or is going to the school - everything is for men."

Every morning in the heart of Addis Ababa knots of runners are strung out over the cracked steps of Meskel Square.

Most of them dream of progressing to the national stadium, just a short distance away.

But first they must grab the attention of one of the top coaches.

Competition is fierce, and the deep well of running talent in Ethiopia shows no sign of drying up.



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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Ethiopia
06 Feb 08 |  Country profiles

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