jueves, 26 de enero de 2012

Kenya Outckicks Ethiopia. Past Glory and Current Crisis in Ethiopian Running School

Vivian Cheruiyot, Sally Kipyego, Linet Masai and Priscah Cherono, in their lap of honour at Daegu World championships, after completing a 1-2-3-4 for Kenya at the 10.000m
            There is a saying when a Kenyan and an Ethiopian athlete arrive head to head to the homestretch, the victory always goes to the latter. It used to be like this for years; for decades. But not anymore. Linet Masai broke the trend on the track at the inaugural day in the 2009 Berlin World championships, achieving an unbelievable gold medal at the 10.000m distance, piping Meseret Defar and Meselech Melkamu at the line, after seeming out of contention entering the last 100 metres. Vivian Cheruiyot rounded up the Kenyan success some days afterwards, in an even more outstanding triumph at the 5000m over Defar, whom she had only defeated once in sixteen previous matches. Cheruiyot has now taken the spotlight over the track as the uncontested female number one in long distance, relegating Meseret to second fiddle and replicating also at last World championships Tirunesh Dibaba’s sensational 5000m-10.000m double victories in Helsinki and Beijing. Such is her superiority, when her manager Ricky Simms was asked about Cheruiyot’s chances for Daegu he had a simple answer: “If the race is fast, Vivian will win. If the race is slow, Vivian will win as well.”(1) Former distance queen Dibaba has been unable to challenge the Kenyan as she has been fighting injuries for most of the last three seasons. So has male counterpart Kenenisa Bekele. Without their two standouts, Ethiopia seems lost on the track and has also been overwhelmingly dominated lately over the roads by their East African neighbours. In Daegu, Ibrahim Jeylan won the sole gold medal for his country at the 10.000m, while Kenya accomplished a record of seven victories and seventeen medals, including sweeping all the places in the podium twice, at the female marathon and 10.000m. Ethiopian athletes are not so fearsome anymore, but what are the reasons for this decline? 
               Some facts which are worth considering:
  1) Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie were the standard-bearers of the Ethiopian renaissance in athletics in the beginning of the 1990s. Their victories and charisma had brought confidence back and hundredths of teens tried to follow in their steps all over the country. By the end of the decade, not just two individuals but a whole generation of young Ethiopians had taken over world long distance running. Miruts Yifter had led a 1-3-4 at the 10.000m in Moscow Olympic Games. This success was reproduced 19 years afterwards, as Haile won the final, at 1999 World Championships. In Sidney Olympics, the following season, a record of 4 gold medals was achieved by Gebrselassie, Tulu, Million Wolde and Gezahegne Abera. By then Paul Tergat and maybe Eric Wainaina were the only challenging Kenyans, while Western countries started to lose interest in the sport due to the overwhelming superiority of the East Africans.
            2) In 2003 Worlds in Saint Dennis participated for the first time (and won), in a global championship on the track, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba. Worthy heirs of Haile and Derartu, they led a second generation of Ethiopian runners, equally talented and superior in depth. The new names among the men were Bekele, Sihine, Gebremariam or Dinkesa, while the Dibaba sisters, Defar, Melkamu or Burka were ready to take the relay from Tulu, Wami, Roba, Alemu and Adere. By then, Kenya was in its weakest moment in many years, even losing twice the male team title at the World Cross Country, which they had held since 1986. At the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, while Kenya won a lonely gold medal thanks to veteran Benjamin Limo at the 5000m, Ethiopia held a never seen stranglehold, especially in the women events. Tirunesh Dibaba, Meseret Defar, Ejegayehu Dibaba and Meselech Melkamu achieved a marvellous 1-2-3-4 at the 5000m, while the Dibaba sisters and Berhane Adere swept also the medals at the 10.000m. Six years afterwards, the Kenyan team has gotten to reverse the situation.     

Gezahegne Abera after winning the 2003 London Marathon
Photo: Getty Images/ IAAF

         3) The turning point was the 2007 World Cross Country championships. Kenya, the host country, prepared a truly challenging contest at sea level in Mombasa under extreme heat and humidity, expecting to put an end to the streak of the invincible Bekele. The Ethiopian squad suffered a pitiful debacle in what can be considered the toughest races ever held in a major championship. More than half of the team succumbed to the exhausting conditions, starting by the same Kenenisa.  Only the senior female representatives (Dibaba, Melkamu, Burka) could manage an acceptable performance and even so Tirunesh was carrying stomach pains sequels throughout the season. Heat and humidity were also present at that year World Championships and again it proved to fit the Kenyans. From 1 gold medal in Helsinki they passed to 5 in Osaka, against 3 of Ethiopia. Out of these medals it was especially remarkable the one at the marathon, where Luke Kibet struck the title 20 years afterwards of his country’s last victory in the event in a global championship. In the overall tally Kenya beat their neighbours 13 to 4. Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele achieved awesome double victories at the subsequent Olympic Games in Beijing but their African rivals won most of the other middle and long distance finals, raising their standards to 6 gold medals, 4 silvers and 4 bronzes. Kenya had overcome the crisis and was now at their best level ever.
           4) Between that key 2003 year to the present, Kenya has won 26 gold medals and Ethiopia 18, at world and Olympic level. If you see the list of the winners, the former has eighteen different champions while the latter only five. If we agree Berhane Adere, who struck the 10k in 2003, belongs to the old generation, it means every title has been got by Bekele (eight victories), Dibaba (six) and Defar (two), with the exception of the last one, whose victor, Ibrahim Jeilan, happens to be based in Japan. Ethiopia has been depending on the same three runners for almost a decade. Now, with Kenenisa and Tirunesh injured and Meseret not quite at her best level, is not being easy to keep winning the finals. No world beaters in the third generation.
            5) Nowadays, due to economical reasons, long distance runners are crowding the roads. This is where most of the athletes of the third generation are. Since the times of the great Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia has a long and outstanding tradition in the marathon. When for Kenya the 42,195km was still virgin territory, their long time rivals had already climbed four times to the top of an Olympic podium in the men category (Bikila twice, Mamu Wolde and Abera). Eric Wainaina seemed to be the only consistent runner of his nation and accordingly he was selected for three consecutive Games, something really unlikely to happen again. Yet  ever since Kenya discovered the road to success, they have not stop winning. Samuel Wanjiru showed every countryman it was possible and it was possible running fast, at Beijing Olympics. Now Kenya keeps a streak of four successive victories at global championships (Kibet, Wanjiru and two times Abel Kirui) and counting. They do not even need to bring their best men to grab the victory.
6) However it is at classic marathons they are stating more clearly their superiority. During the sensational 2011 season, Geoffrey and Emmanuel Mutai, Patrick Makau and Moses Mosop all set new best in every one of the world marathon majors. (2) Makau in Berlin and Wilson Kipsang in Frankfurt improved on the previous Gebrselassie’s world record and also did Geoffrey and Moses at the wind-aided Boston. All 20 best marks of the year in the IAAF ranking were achieved by Kenyans. All of them ran under 2:06:30. Remember that old record (2:06:50) Belayneh Dinsamo set in 1988 which stood for 10 years? Meanwhile, no Ethiopian was able to break 2:07 in a no-downhill race in the whole year. Gebremariam was the author in Boston of the most worthy performance of the season: 2:04.53 with the tailwind, good for only third place. After his victorious debut in the distance, in the Big Apple in 2010, this season he is the best Ethiopian but unable to follow the Mutais and Mosop. On the other hand, Tsegaye Kebede, who was thought the best marathoner in the world without Wanjiru, after Sammy’s untimely death, in 2011 was just 5th in London and 3rd in New York. No wonder, Haile has decided to run Tokyo instead of faster races as Dubai, probably thinking world class times will not be needed to make the Ethiopian team to London Olympics.  
Buzunesh Deba and Firehiwot Dado at 2011 New York marathon
7) Talking about women, first of all we can realize about the massive incorporation of Ethiopian female to the practice of track and field. One decade ago we had Olympic champion Fatuma Roba and Elfenesh Alemu. Then track specialists Tulu, Wami, Adere and a few others: Asha Gigi, Magarsa Tafa and Dire Tune. That is all for ten years. Nowadays, in 2011, no less than 33 Ethiopian girls made the top-100 in the marathon, almost doubling in number the Kenyans (18). The problem is the latter nation loses talking about quantity but wins if we refer to quality. In 2009 and 2010 Ethiopian athletes won many classic marathons and even achieved a bronze medal at the world championships with Aselefech Mergia. Yet last year was quite different.   Kenya has found a new generation to replace the likes of Catherine Ndereba and Rita Jeptoo and they are starting to show amazing results. In the spring, a Kenyan girl won every one of the most renowned marathons: Philes Ongori in Rotterdam, Priscah Jeptoo in Paris, Caroline Kilel in Boston and finally Mary Keitany in London. The latter marathon was especially noteworthy: despite many of the current best Ethiopian women had entered the competition, as the half-marathon record holder launched her attack mid-race, only one of them, Aberu Kebede, dared to follow her, along with Edna Kiplagat and Liliya Shobukhova. However the pace was too much for Kebede and she finished hitting the wall. Only the diminutive Bizunesh Bekele managed, at her own rhythm, a decent fourth place.  http://www.moti-athletics-marathon-w.blogspot.com/2011/05/after-spring-marathons-things-seem-more.html  Identical scene was later reproduced at the World Championships: Edna, Sharon Cherop and Priscah Jeptoo changed dramatically the pace, destroying the whole field, which included the best possible Ethiopian team. Again Aberu Kebede tried to follow the leaders in vain and again Bizunesh Bekele finished up fourth. Nevertheless, in the autumn, still Ethiopia could win a major marathon as Mary Keitany in New York miscalculated her forces trying to keep a world record pace through the hilly course and eventually was overcome by three times winner in Rome Firehiwot Dado and Bronx-based Buzunesh Deba. That surprising victory, along with late-year amazing performances of Mamitu Daska, Korene Jelila, Tiki Gelana and the debutant Ejegayehu Dibaba, can be a big booster for the confidence of Ethiopian girls for the Olympic marathon. 
8) In Beijing Olympics youngster Yakob Jarso improved the 28-year-old national record at the steeplechase which Eshetu Tura set at Moscow Olympics, getting an excellent 4th place in the final. He followed this up with a 5th position at Berlin World Championships, just ahead of compatriot Roba Gari. There was talk Ethiopian runners had chances of threatening Kenyans in a close future at their pet event. However, Jarso is currently running 5k and 10k in Japan and even trying the roads, while Roba, in spite of improving several times Jarso’s record, is not challenging in any way the likes of Ezekiel Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto. We will see the next generation, which led by Birhan Getahun obtained a surprising clean sweep of the medals against the Kenyan B team at last African Games. Their females counterparts as Sofia Assefa has never ceased of playing second fiddle against Milcah Chemos or Yuliya Zaripova.     
9) Middle distance runners are luckier than steeplechasers for the moment. Gelete Burka, Kalkidan Gezahegne and Deresse Mekonnen have all won World indoor titles at the 1500m but still need to improve on their consistency, in an event quite open in both female and male categories. Abeba Arigawi and Yenew Alamirew, especially the latter because of his manager is Jos Hermens, have been seen as the new Tirunesh and Kenenisa, after their brilliant 2011 indoor campaign. Yet Arigawi was injured for all the summer season and Alamirew, after some impressive races, faded to the point he was not selected for the world championships. In Daegu, David Rudisha, Asbel Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat were untouchables. However, not everything is lost, after seeing teen Mohamed Aman break Rudisha’s 34-meet winning streak in rainy Milan.  

Ibrahim Jeylan passes Mo Farah to win the 10.000m at Daegu World Championships
Photo: Andy Lyons/ Getty Images

             As we can see, in most cases Ethiopia has passed in recent years from the running distance powerhouse to second to Kenya and the gap is increasingly growing. Now, after this panorama we can try to find out the reasons why.
            One of the main causes has to do with training. 
No matter how wild, remote and isolated do you think Ethiopia is, the country was open since the very beginning to excellent coaching lessons from abroad.   http://moti-athletics-marathon-m.blogspot.com/2012/01/abebe-bikila.html   Behind Abebe Bikila’s superhuman victory at the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, there was a man who had prepared the imperial bodyguard carefully for years for this moment. Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of an old dynasty which traced its origins to King Solomon, had made an effort to develop government, defence, culture and sport up to modern standards. Not wanting to be dependent neither from the USA nor from the Soviet Union, he asked for help Sweden, a nation which had impressed the Lion of Judah in a visit he had made in 1924. About 600 Scandinavian experts were working in the country when Onni Niskanen came to Ethiopia in 1946. Despite his original mission was to fit the imperial guard, soon he was engaged in the Ministry of sports and eventually became the national coach. Niskanen introduced fartlek in Ethiopia, the revolutionary new interval training method, which combined aerobic and anaerobic skills in a natural environment, created by Gösta Olander in order to be able to challenge their neighbours, the “Flying Finns”, who had dominated distance running in the Olympics for nearly three decades. Niskanen combined fartlek with speed training on the track and long runs. Always the emphasis was in quality. Niskanen realized about the importance of speed endurance in a marathon and thus demanded race pace to Abebe Bikila, who had a capacity for running never seen before. The Jato shepherd could endure 32km at 3:10/3:15 pace so in Rome was able of running two 5k splits mid-race in 14:37 and 13:42, which only Moroccan Radhi could sustain. After winning the race in a world record time, the champion told his coach he could have kept the same rhythm for 10-15 more kilometres! (3) Bikila’s superiority under Onni in Rome is comparable to the demonstrations of Lydiard disciples Peter Snell and Murray Halberg at the same Olympic Games.

Dr. Woldemeskel Mestre, Master of coaches

Roba Negussie, who was assisting Niskanen when Abebe Bikila got his two Olympic victories in Rome and Tokyo, took over as head coach in Mexico-68, where Mamo Wolde increased the Ethiopian winning streak in the marathon. Negussie absorbed the lessons of the Swedish school but in the other hand followed studies in Physical Education in Czechoslovakia. And was not Emil Zatopek, a Czech athlete, the one who eventually got to beat Scandinavians at the Olympics? Ethiopia had become a Communist country in 1975 and thus enjoyed the benefits of being part of that block. The African nation became a privileged destination for training in altitude for East German runners as Olaf Beyer, the man who beat both Coe and Ovett at the 1978 European Championships, Jurgen Straub, Utta Pippig and race walker Ron Weigel. When the German athletes trained in the stadium of Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian coaches were standing next to them and noted the whole training session while the stop watch was in their hand. Later an exchange developed. Ethiopian coaches and athletes came to Potsdam for training camps and they competed in the GDR meetings. Furthermore, a lot of African coaches studied in Leipzig at the University for Body Culture (DHfK). Among them was also the future national head coach for distance running, Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre. (4) Ethiopians learned so well they were at a level of their own at Moscow Olympics. Only Lasse Viren and his mates in the Finnish squad, which counted with the valuable help of the same Arthur Lydiard as technical advisor, could match the likes of Yifter, Kedir and Kotu. That Ethiopian superiority was again witnessed when they entered the world cross country championship in 1981.  
Meanwhile, Kenya had been introduced by English colonisers to the sport of track and field. The tireless dedication of John Velzian put the country on the athletic map. “I have got to take a cold shower to believe it”, was quoted Ron Clarke after being defeated by the unkown Naftali Temu by 140 yards. (5)  The likes of Temu, Kip Keino, Amos Biwott or Wilson Kiprugut would astonish the world in the late 60s and early 70s. Observers were also amazed about the ridiculous volume of training of athletes like Keino in comparaison of established Westerner stars, but since the beginning Kenyans understood training in altitude could not be the same than at sea level and quality was always preferred to quantity.
Unfortunately, two straight boycotts and the poor investment of Kenyan authorities in sport almost killed the practice of track and field in the country, during the seventies. The only ones among the international elite were those who enjoyed a scholarship abroad as Mike Boit, Ben Jipcho, Mike Musyoki or Henry Rono and they had to handle with their corrupted national federation, which wanted to control every one of their moves and cash all the money they were earning in competitions. Kenya had to wait to the arrival of determined coach Mike Kosgei and hardworking disciple John Ngugi, who resurrected national pride and interest for track and field in the country, with their triumphs in Cross Country starting in 1986, setting the example to follow for every new athlete. The new way was a radical departure from the past: three training sessions a day, fartlek, high mileage and high intensity. Not far away of what their Ethiopian neighbours had been doing. Besides Mike Boit was elected in 1990 Commissioner of sports and he cut with the dubious manoeuvres of the past, giving the athletes their passports back and allowing them to compete where and when they wanted, as well to allow the access to the country to international agents and sponsors, bringing to the spiral of opportunities, incentives and the favorable atmosphere to the practise of sport we experience today.  http://www.moti-athletics-xc.blogspot.com/2011/05/john-ngugi-first-kenyan-world-cross.html
 When the Kenyan rising in the second half of the 80s it was not really easy for Ethiopia to keep the rhythm with three Olympic boycotts and the troublesome government of the Derg, which brought to a long civil war and general famine. Yet when Mengistu was deposed and the situation in the country was back to normality, Ethiopian track and field was quickly back to its past glory with Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie’s gold medals at the 10.000m in 1992 Olympics and 1993 Worlds respectively. Long time head coach Roba Negussie had died just before Barcelona Olympics and he was replaced by Woldemeskel Kostre, who had been an assistant in the national team since 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Kostre had studied in Leipzigz and previously in Hungary for many years, obtaining first a degree, then a postgraduate diploma in Physical Education and Sports Pedagogy. (6) Decisive was also the incorporation of Tolosa Kotu, a man who had taken part in that thrilling 10.000m final in Moscow. Kotu took the responsaility of the 5k and 10k in the national team. With the duo Kostre-Kotu in charge, Ethiopia’s workouts can be considered the most advanced of their time and arguably of the whole history of distance running. It is not by coincidence Woldemeskel was chosen by the IAAF best coach of the year in 2006, the first time this distinction was awarded.

Haile Gebrselassie wins gold at 2000 Sidney Olympic Games
Photo: Henry Szwarc/ Bongarts/ Getty Images
Gebrselassie snatched no less than 19sec in five years to the former 5000m world record of Said Aouita, and 32sec to the 10.000m one, which previously owned William Sigei, thus putting long distance running in a new dimension. Firstly, many believed this athletic revolution, in which also collaborated Daniel Komen, Paul Tergat and Salah Hissou, was accomplished with the help of drugs. Soon it was obvious it was not. Nowadays, Renato Canova, one of the best coaches of the moment, regards records and performances in sprints and middle distances have progressed modestly in the last two decades, especially if we compare it with the meteoric evolution in distance running. Thus he concludes there was a wrong approach in most of the leading countries in the world in 5k and 10k for many years. In particular, in his opinion, it was neglected speed endurance which we saw Ethiopian coaches had emphasized since the times of Onni Niskanen. Had been Ethiopia free of civil war and famine and had their athletes being able to compete in every Olympic Games they would have probably dominated distance running, without any break, for half a century. Of course Kostre has his own personal conception of training but this one is often a synthesis of the best elements in the history of Ethiopian school. The tactics used by Miruts Yifter in Moscow (follow the leader, then unleash a devastating kick with 300-400m to go) are the same we can observe in Gebrselassie, Bekele, Tulu, Dibaba and Defar. Therefore the nickname “shifter” could be applied to any of them: Yifter the Shifter, Gebre the shifter, Derartu the shifter and so on.  
There are similarities in training between Ethiopians and Kenyans but one of the main differences used to be the former practice very short sprint repetitions on the track and uphill of 60-100m. This kind of intervals were popularised by a legendary coach called Mihaly Igloí, who happened to be from Hungary, the country where Woldemeskel was studying during 14 years in. However, noting the characteristics of Yifter, Negussie could have already known Igloí’s teachings. Igloí, who had perfected the findings of German laboratories in the 1930s, mentored the golden generation of Hungarian distance runners: Sandor Ilharos, Laszlo Tabori and Istvan Rozsavolgyi, in the 1950s; then went to the exile, after the Soviet Union invasion, to the USA, where he formed the likes of Bob Schul and Jim Beatty. Overall, his pupils broke a total of 49 world records. Under Igloí, Schul is reported to have run a 54sec last lap to win the 1500m at Tokyo Olympics on a muddy track. Does it remember you something? For many years countries from the Communist block kept the secret of their training methods and that included Ethiopia. However, the emerging group of young Italian coaches, during the 70s and 80s, which included Canova, visited several countries in order to enlarge their knowledge. It included Poland, a nation which counted with the likes of steeplechase Olympic champion Bronislaw Malinowski. Interestingly, Italy was the last European nation able to challenge East African men on the track as well as on the roads, with champions as Cova, Panetta, Lambruschini, Antibo, Mei, Bordin and Baldini. Can you imagine Francesco Panetta beating the same Kenyans at the steeplechase at the 1987 World Championships? Canova, along with close friend and marathon national coach Lucio Gigliotti, wrote the training program for Stefano Baldini for Athens Olympic marathon, including the Ethiopian 60m maximum speed repetitions. Baldini won the gold medal, running the last 2k in 5:30! (7)   
        However, Kenyans, who in spite of their excellent progression had been trailing Ethiopians for so many years and been outkicked by them so many times in the same way, worked hard to close the gap and eventually found the antidote. After Vivian Cheruiyot’s triumphs over Defar in Daegu, Kenya’s athletic chairman Isiah Kiplagat was quoted: “We adjusted a few things in her training. We just added a little bit of speed.” (1) The runner itself was still more eloquent: “The last 400 metres have been very difficult for Kenya. Before, we did not have a strong last 400 metres but we have worked on that. I noted Meseret used to beat me launching a powerful attack in the beginning of the last lap so I focused in the last 200m, to be able to kick her back.” (1)
        Ethiopia had benefited in the past from the arrival of Scandinavians and East Germans to the country for coaching and training in altitude but very few people is coming anymore. Nowadays Iten has taken the spotlight, attracting foreign runners, coaches, managers and sponsors  About the importance of Iten for modern track and field culture is enough to say David Bedford, London marathon director, thought it was a good idea to come to that small Kenyan village for the presentation of his race edition in 2012. Thousands of Kenyans, looking for opportunities, make the trip to the Mecca of running , where they are joined by many foreign elite athletes, who stay for months for their altitude training. Hundreds of training camps and trail tracks are at their disposal and especially an ideal atmosphere to focus in the practice of the sport. In Iten you breathe running the 24 hours of the day.  http://www.moti-athletics-marathon-m.blogspot.com/2011/06/about-last-boston-marathon-and-current.html  Currently, 22 members of the host country for this year Olympic Games are lodged at the modern training camp created by Lornah Kiplagat, led by marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe, who has a long experience of training in Kenya. The legendary coach of champions Brother Colm O’Connell has taken in charge this enthusiastic group of Briton athletes. Others as the twin brothers from New Zealand Jake and Zane Robertson have even decided to move to Kenya for as long as possible to live and train the way Kenyans do. http://moti-athletics-5000-m.blogspot.com/2011/12/jake-and-zane-robertson-following-their.html   Local runners and guests obtain mutual benefits of this exchange in the same way Ethiopian and East Germans used to do in the 70s and 80s.  

Renato Canova in company of a masseur supervises a workout in Iten
Coaches and agents are investing their knowledge and money in this gold mine.  And yes! Many of the training mentors are coming from Italy, starting by Doctor Gabriele Rosa two decades ago. World class coaches as Renato Canova, Claudio Berardelli and Gabriele Nicola are no fond anymore of coaching their countrymen, mainly because youngster Italians talented for sport are not anymore interested in the practise of athletics. Instead they look for new incentives helping highly motivated Kenyans in becoming world beaters. Some of them have also taken some Ethiopian runners but in a lesser extent for the moment. Due to the arrival of a new young generation of marathoners, which has skipped the track, fast enough to run the 10.000m under 27min, Canova can now set trainings of the highest quality he has ever planned, putting together the toughest workouts, then increasing time for recovery. Thus he expects Moses Mosop to increase even more his speed endurance so he can be able of sustaining a 29min pace for every 10km of the marathon to complete the race in 2:02:30. Currently, Renato is in charge of among others, besides Mosop, Abel Kirui, Wilson Kiprop, Silas Kiplagat, Florence Kiplagat, Lucy Kabuu and Lydia Cheromei. Besides, he also works with a few Ehiopian ahletes as the most consistent  track runner of his nation in the last years, Imane Merga, and some marathoners as Aselefech Mergia and Aberu Kebede. This kind of training regime under some of the best international coaches of the moment has helped Kenyan athletes break the records and dominate the world scene. Yet, even self-coached runners as Boston and New York reigning champion Geoffrey Mutai can take good lessons from this optimal environment, in which they are living every day, in Iten.
Meanwhile inside Ethiopia things remain stuck. Training methods have not been updated. Experts from other countries do not often come, travels abroad to acquire a formation are not quite set and Woldemeskel Kostre’s knowledge and experience does not suffice anymore. Besides, Tolosa Kotu left the national team to train in Bahrain and he is badly missed. These are reasons why, while Kenyan athletes are massively improving, no Ethiopian man ran a marathon last year under 2:07 and among the 33 marathon women ranked in the world lists none is likely to become the new Tulu or the new Dibaba. There have never been in the country so many youngsters who dream to become celebrated runners, but favourable or unfavourable circumstances make the difference between a good runner and a world beater.
There are further reasons to choose Kenya as destination. In Iten it is possible to communicate in English while Amharic language can be a barrier for newcomers. Besides the country of Vivian Cheruiyot has a superior level of general development and what is more important their authorities are more committed currently in investing their money and efforts so Kenyan athletes have the means to perform to their best and their modest facilities can become an attractive destination for coaches, sponsors and foreign athletes. On the other hand Ethiopian government is not worrying much about the development of track and field in the country and furthermore cases of negligence and corruption are easily observables. Ethiopia’s current situation can be compared to the Kenya we knew prior to Mike Boit’s healthy reforms or even worse.           
Most Ethiopian runners are Oromo, who come from the Arsi province, many of them from Bekoji, a town of 200.000 people. A few will benefit from the small budget the Ethiopian Athletic Federation (EAF) invests in youth development projects. Unlike Kenya, promising athletes do not stay for their athletic career in the rural regions they belong to. In similar fashion to the old Soviet block model, sport is centralised in the capital. The youngsters selected from regional competitions join Addis Abeba athletic clubs. The best among the best will be enrolled in the national team. Athletes must move to the capital but life is expensive there. They only obtain a small stipend from their club so they have to live on their own means until they get to participate in some competitions abroad. Thus many eventually decide to return home, giving up sport prematurely. Also worth to say is in a big city as Addis Abeba, and with a centralised system, it is not possible the spontaneity and lovable atmosphere you meet around Iten. First of all you need to take a car and go out many miles of the city to find some trails for training.  
        As we can see not much money is invested in grassroots level and nor is in training camps. It is enough to see the wasted shoes full of holes some foreign visitors show over the Internet, claiming some economical help for Ethiopian athletes. Nevertheless, countries as Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates are allowed to create training camps in their own benefit, where they spot local talent. These Muslim nations, which never cared about promoting track and field practice in their own territories, want anyway to shine in the Olympic Games through an easier way: spending some of their abundant money in naturalising some of the young talents of other countries. The Ethiopian government is given bribes to close an eye and let them make their business, and the young athletes accept the same the opportunity of the money offered to them, changing citizenship and even their own names to compete for their country of adoption. Some years ago Qatar and Bahrain used to “fish” in Kenya but currently Ethiopia seems to be the privileged destination. Maryam Jamal and Elvan Abeylegesse changed citizenship to Bahrain and Turkey respectively for special reasons. After their success, these nations and some others, which curiously have always most of them discriminated women from the practice of the sport, show a special interest in getting more East African female to win medals for them. Thus Turkey has taken Meriem Erdogan and Alemitu Bekele; Azerbaijan, Layes Adullayeva; Bahrain Shitaye Eshete, Tejitu Daba, Mimi Belete, Genzebe Shami, Karima Saleh Jassem and Lishan Dula; United Arab Emirates, Betlhem Desalegn and Alia Mohamed Saeed. There are also men: Dejene Regassa, Bilisuma Shume, Hayle Ibrahimov… Bahrain has even engaged the legendary coach Tolosa Kotu, expecting to get some medals at the Olympics… This kind of practices are a minor issue in a country as Ethiopia, where corruption is generalised, the First Lady of the country Azab Mesfin is also the leader of the mafia and even the same Haile Gebrselassie is believed to have been blackmailed in his real state enterprises. (9)

Tejitu Daba (c) and Shitaye Eshete, in company of Amina Bakhit of Sudan, on the podium of the 10.000 metres
 at the 2011 Pan Arab Games
Photo: Getty Images
Much talent is wasted anyway. Ibrahim Jeylan, after winning the 10.000m in Daegu, the first thing he said to journalists was he had needed to move to Japan to be able to develop an athletic career. The 2006 World Junior champion stated, in spite of being in the national team for many years, he had been left out of the final squad in Beijing Olympics and Berlin Worlds to favour other runners with worse seasonal best than him. This is not really true for the former competition but it is for the latter, where the “lucky one” was Gebre Gebremariam. (10) Another matter is the preparation for the major championships is not always ideal. Mombasa is in Kenya but most of the athletes of that country come from the Eldoret mountainous region which climatic conditions are similar to what you can get in Ethiopia. Thus the heat and humidity was equally challenging for both countries. However, the Kenyan squad achieved at the 2007 World Cross Country championships an astonishing 2-3-4-5-6 in the senior male contest after Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, while most of their rivals had to withdraw from the race. Kenya does not let any circumstance to improvisation. When Mercy Cherono, after winning the junior race at the 2010 Cross Country Worlds was asked who she believed was to win the senior race, after watching for some seconds the beginning of the race answered without hesitation: “Emily (Chebet).” Every member of the team knows who the leaders are, who is in shape and who will have to work for other mates. In spite of winning seven gold medals in Daegu, the Kenyan head coach was disappointed with the performance of the male representatives at the 5k and 10k, who were easily beaten by Farah, Lagat and Ethiopians Jeylan, Imane Merga and Gebremeskel. He said Kenyans were forgetting track to win money on the roads and was already thinking how to make amends for the Olympics. On the other hand, Meseret Defar blamed the EAF for her defeat: “When I was in Addis Ababa, I was in the form of my life, but it took me 22 hours to travel to Daegu and when I got here, I was sick and was throwing up.” Maybe it was not the best way to face arguably the best two Kenyan track runners ever, Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai.
        We can conclude athletes are not the ones to be blamed for the poor Ethiopian performance in Daegu. Anyway, the EAF is worried about the Olympics and as consequence is overacting these days. No less than 35 athletes were banned for London for not attending a training camp in November, including the two reigning Olympic champions Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele, and also Tariku, Sihine, Melkamu, Ayalew Yimer, Kalkidan Gezahegne, Cherkos and most of the leading female marathoners. In recent years some athletes have been suspended for disobeying their respective federations. We can remember the cases of the Jamaican MVP club members, including Shelly-Ann Fraser, Melaine Walker and Asafa Powell, who eventually were allowed to compete in Berlin World Champs after the intermediation of the IAAF, and Kenyan distance runners Ngatuny, Kitwara and Komon. Nevertheless, 35 people seem too many. It remembers me that occasion when, after Haile decided to compete at the 10.000m in Beijing instead of at the marathon, due to her asthma problems, the EAF technical director Jilo Dube was quoted “It is not up to Gebrselassie to choose in which event he is going to compete at the Olympic Games.”
        While Tirunesh opted for not making any statement, Kenenisa, who learned the news on TV, made excuses saying he was injured; then reacted in anger: “let me compete for another country.” On the other hand, his wise manager Jos Hermens dropped some words about which were some of the real reasons for the athletes for not showing up for the camp: “Kenenisa has told the federation he does not want to train on the Mondo track at the national stadium because it is too hard and it could lead to injury. Kenenisa and Haile were among several athletes who asked the authorities not to lay a hard track there three years ago, but they were ignored. This is a nation with the world's best endurance runners, and they lay a sprinter's track at the national stadium.” (11) Actually, the same Kenenisa Bekele has decided to invest  $ 1 million in make build an alternative track for training because the EAF is not going to do it on his own initiative. There is a long story of foot injuries, among Ethiopian athletes for doing their workouts on such surfaces, as marathon Olympic champion Gezahegne Abera, who had to retire from sport, Haile who needed surgery and more recently Bekele and Dibaba. Besides, Hermens considered 223 athletes can not train together like a football team. More flexibility is needed. There are some younger runners who require more assistance but others have their own coaches and their own planning. Actually, among the banned athletes are Mamitu Deska, Tiki Gelana, Mare Dibaba, Koreni Jelila, Bizunesh Bekele, Aberu Kebede, Aselefech Mergia, Atsede Habtamu and Atsede Bayisa. Let us say all the athletes who are scheduled for the Dubai marathon race, where they will try to obtain a fast time to qualify for London Olympics, along with Firehiwot Dado, who is likely to get a wild card, after her victory in New York. It is logical all those marathon runners wanted to do the best possible training for that imminent and decisive race, instead of attending camps which did not fit their interests.
The best of all, the ban was lifted in less than one week, after the 35 athletes apologised to the federation. Good luck for the ladies of the marathon tomorrow in Dubai, where they will face Lydia Cheromei and Lucy Kabuu Wangui, who targets the Kenyan national record in her first marathon. It will be a nice occasion for the Ethiopians to try to run under 2:20:00 and prove they can also be competitive in London Olympics. Good luck also for the men. Anyway, there is a long way for Ethiopian athletics to get to recover their past glory when they were the powerhouse of long distance running.  

Now it belongs to the past...  Ejegayehu Dibaba, Meseret Defar, Tirunesh Dibaba and Meselech Melkamu at 2005 Helsinki World Championships, after achieving an historic 1-2-3-4 at the 5000m distance.
Photo: Michael Steele/ Getty Images

7 comentarios:

  1. Congratulations to Aselefech Mergia and Ayele Abshero for their extraordinaries victories and clockings at Dubai marathon and also to the other athletes who did well in the race.
    No less than nine male Ethiopians ran under 2:06:30, which is clearly the fastest field in a race ever. And this after a whole year in which no Ethiopian was able to dip under 2:07:00.
    In the female race, four Ethiopians improved the national record (Mergia, Mare Dibaba, Bezunesh Bekele and Aberu Kebede). For the first time ever three women (Mergia, Dibaba and Kenyan Lucy Kabuu) dipped under 2:20:00, in a marathon.
    Awesome competition indeed.
    I hope this will be the beginning of a great reaction of the Ethiopian athletes.

    Excellent coverage here by Letsrun.com:

  2. London Olympic will tell the quality and stamina and real team work of the brave Ethiopians. As far as I know this athletes trained by few coaches with no much of proper coaching training with very limited facilities of training in the only one standard track/stadium of the country.
    The rest of the world will watch with great admiration and enjoy the real middle and long distance competition by these two East African's.
    Best wishes to all Olympic athletes.
    Wishing the usual great success to the brave Ethiopians.
    Alemayehu Asfaw

    1. Thanks for comments, Alemayehu.
      After the dissapointment in Daegu,I also hope Ethiopia will strike back in London.
      Good luck for every Ethiopian runner at the upcoming Olympics!!!

  3. Hiwot, that is exactly what i was gonna say when i read this article. I loved the analysis ,but was disappointed by the bias. One good lesson for whoever wrote this is that u can never tell for sure what is gonna come out of an event which can easily be determined by tons of factors and the unpredictable human element.So here we are today we , Ethiopians, doing what we do best :defying judgement and soaring above and beyond expectations.While we are humble ,we are also invincible.Mr writer,i want to extend my appreciation of ur analysis while i also beg you to please exercise some fairness and professionalism in your future analysis.Go "Yagere lijoch" (compatriots) ,Go Ethiopia, Go Africa !!!

    1. Thanks for comments, Yared.
      My analysis... I did what I could with my humble means.
      I'm as glad as you athletics are not mathematics and my predictions have failed. (They failed too when I bet Genzebe Dibaba was going to win the 1500m at the Olympics).
      Anyway, you can realise I like Ethiopian runners very much because, besides this article, I've also written in my blogs about Abebe Bikila, Yifter/Kedir and the Ethiopian new generation in middle distance running.
      I almost fell in tears of emotion in that thrilling race last Friday, when Werknesh Kidane set a perfect race for the sensational triumph of Tirunesh Dibaba. I also liked Tiki Gelana's gold medal in the marathon.
      Of course I will write about all that (with fairness and professionalism).
      I also invite you to post here a nice article about Ethiopian running and invite the same to anybody in Ethiopia who thinks he has interesting things to say about this topic.

  4. "I almost fell in tears of emotion in that thrilling race last Friday, when Werknesh Kidane set a perfect race for the sensational triumph of Tirunesh Dibaba" indeed it was so emotional. Thats one jesture that challenges my thinking.Its like sacrificing ur all for sb to make it. Even though the commentator was saying the opposite during the race, i knew it had to do with team work.After the race ,during an interview,Workinesh was telling how proud she is of what she did and what was accomplished by Tirunesh. She said she did that to -"kenyawochun lemadenzez"- which roughly translated means, " to numb the kenyans".She overheard them talk to each other after which she communicated that to Tirunesh. The rivalry is the fuel of the entire race and the reason why millions of people get on their feet to see that . Go Africa !!

  5. i just found out teh results for teh 5000m women london 2012 race. I am so excited that teh medals are contained where are meant to be. I love Meseret Defar in and out of track.She is one formidable lady.I appreciate the dicision by the coach for putting Dibaba on teh team once again even though i feel for the other athlete who lost the spot.Thank you ladies.U have made us proud. Go Ethiopia ,Go kenya ,Go Africa!!!!