29 July 2012

Ethiopia: Nation's Olympic Medals Bid

Photo: BackpagePix
From left, Olympics 10,000m contenders Moses Ndiema Masai, Bedan Muchiri, Mo Farah (who won gold) and Tariku Bekele (silver).

Following the emergence of a new generation of medal hopefuls in both traditionally strong and previously unheralded events, those involved with the Ethiopian Olympic team are quietly confident of the nation's prospects before the athletics events kick off on August 3, 2012, at the London Olympic Stadium.

With a history of 56 years in participation and 52 in medalling, the Ethiopian team has long been Olympic aficionados' pick for medals when the Summer Games come around every four years. The perennial favourites' billing has existed largely due to medals in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres with sporadic success in the marathon.

But, much of the country's medals hopes in the Games of the 30th Olympiad, began on July 27th in London, rest on athletes competing in events where the country has not previously excelled. For the first time in its history, Ethiopia will have a representative in the men's and women's 800 metres, with both tipped as potential medallists.

It should not come as a major shock that Ethiopia stands a chance of winning medals in these traditionally unheralded events. After all, the country made its Olympic debut in the Melbourne Games back in 1956 and had a finalist in the men's 400 metres and 800 metres. It has also been competing in the 400 metres and 800 metres for some years at continental and junior levels, with some success, at least in continental championships.

But, in Mohammed Aman and Fantu Magiso, the country can look forward to London 2012 with two genuine, young medal contenders to challenge the event's favourites.

Born and raised in Assela, home to many of Ethiopia's famous distance runners including the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, Mohammed made his mark by winning gold in the 1,000 metres at the first ever Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, in 2010. He has consistently improved in major championships in the last two years to rank among the major medal contenders in London 2012.

His two major achievements thus far came late in 2011, when he beat world record-holder and reigning world champion David Rudisha on a rain-soaked track in Milan, Italy. In March this year, he outran the competition to win Ethiopia's first ever world indoor 800-metre gold at the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.

In contrast, Fantu has had a more dramatic progression in her short but interesting career. Touted as a possible sprinting hope after reaching the 200-metre and 400-metre finals at the 17th African Athletics Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 2010, and then winning the African junior title in a longer event in Gaborone, Botswana, she became the first Ethiopian to compete in the 400 metres, at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, and reach the semi-finals.

But, instead of sticking to the event and battling with so many world-beating athletes, Fantu chose to move up to the 800 metres with some instant success, finishing fourth at the World Indoors in March this year, before taking the summer by storm with some fantastic performances, including a then-world-leading time of 1:57.48 at the Samsung Diamond League meeting in Rome, Italy.

While her world-leading time has since been overtaken by Kenyan Pamela Jelimo, the defending Olympic champion, Fantu's powerful finishing and her refreshingly easygoing lifestyle on the track has made her a popular hit and a potential medal contender in London.

The 800 metres may be relatively unchartered territory for Ethiopia. Nonetheless, the country has been producing quality 1,500-metre athletes, albeit without any Olympic medals to show for. There is overwhelming evidence that things could be different this year.

One to watch out for is Genzebe Dibaba, younger sister of double-Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba. After a stellar junior career, where she won two world cross-country titles and one world 5,000-metre title, and after enduring a few senior years of trying to break into Ethiopia's major championship teams in the 5,000 metres with mixed results, Genzebe made the decision in 2012 to switch to the 1,500 metres with instant success. In March this year, she became only the second Ethiopian to win gold in the 1,500 metres at the World Indoor Championships and broke the national 1,500-metre record by running 3:57.77 in Shanghai, China, in May.

But, while Genzebe has since suffered a minor injury that has derailed her progress, the European track season saw the rise of Abeba Aregawi to the top of the Ethiopian ranks.

Coming off of two mediocre seasons as an 800-metre and 1,500-metre specialist, Abeba clocked 3:56.54 to further lower Genzebe's national record and cement her position as a favourite for Olympic gold. But, her rise has also come with a blessing in disguise.

Having spent large parts of her earlier career in Sweden, living and training with her partner Henok Woldegebriel, Abeba had applied for Swedish citizenship last year, with her application queuing with others' in immigration. However, her instant success this summer has meant that she has gone through a representation tag-of-war between her native and adoptive homelands, a war that now looks to have been won by Ethiopia. The 22 year-old has been training with the Ethiopian Olympic team during the entire saga and will lead the nation's charge in the 1,500 metres in London.

Despite the uncertainties with the 800-metre and 1,500-metre medals, the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres do still provide opportunities for medals in London 2012. After all, Ethiopian athletes have taken five of the six gold medals on offer in both the men's and women's events in the last three Olympic Games. Anything else has become unacceptable for Ethiopians who have come to define gold in this marquee event as the minimum return for the passionate following of the team.

In the last two years, following injuries to 2008 double Olympic champions Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia's vanguard event and success has been threatened by sparing successes from near and far. Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot, who took the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres at the World Championships in Daegu last year, was the main challenger as well as Britain's Somali-born European double champion, Mohammed Farah, who, after years of mediocrity, has established himself as one of the athletes to watch out for in both men's events.

Both Cheruiyot and Farah will again be hoping to claim major Ethiopian scalps this year. However, they will face a resurgent Ethiopian team with both Tirunesh and Kenenisa returning from injury. Both will lead the squad in the 10,000 metres and a crop of young stars emerging in the men's 5,000 metres, perhaps a timely answer to calls by fans for fresh faces in Ethiopia's major championship squads.

London's Olympic Stadium is the venue for the Game's athletics events, some of which Ethiopia has a good chance of dominating.

Leading Ethiopia's gold-medal hopes in the men's 5,000 metres is world leader Dejen Gebremeskel. His continuous improvement in the event has been rewarded this year with a fantastic world leading time of 12:46.18, fifth fastest in history, in Paris last month. The 22 year-old claimed a deserved bronze in Daegu last year but has shown enough consistency this year to indicate that he can challenge for the place on top of the medal podium.

Joining him in London will be Hagos Gebrehiwet, who has surprised many with his emergence this year. The 18 year-old clocked 12:47.53 to finish behind Daegu in Paris and has come leaps and bounds since finishing fifth in last year's world youth championships. Yenew Alamirew, who burst onto the international scene with a 7:28 outdoor and 7:27 indoor performance in 2010, completed the men's 5,000-metre contingent, and his 12:48.77 in the fast paced contest in Paris indicates that he is another force to be reckoned with.

The remarkable performances by this trio of young Ethiopians have reduced Kenenisa to only a reserve in the men's 5,000-metre squad. But, despite struggling in his return to full fitness with some speculative performances, the 30 year-old is still amongst the favourites for the 10,000 metres, given that the event's depth in performance has not progressed during his prolonged injury absence.

Long gone maybe the days when Kenenisa reduced the world to also-ran and ran-close-to world record performances, but the double Olympic 10,000-metre champion is perhaps the event's most successful athlete, with just one defeat in 33 races, having won all major titles in the event since he started competing internationally in 1999. He clocked a world-leading 27:02.59 to win his lone 10,000-metre appearance this year. Kenenisa is the man to beat in the event.

Joining him in the 10,000 metres will be younger brother Tariku Bekele, who moves up from his customary 5,000 metres for the first time this year. Tariku won the first of Ethiopia's three trial races in the 10,000 metres, in Hengelo, the Netherlands, earlier this year, and his improved finishing means that he could have a say in the order of the medals in the race.

Former world cross-country and New York Marathon champion, Gebregziabher Gebremariam, drops down from the marathon to complete Ethiopia's 10,000-metre team for London.

The story in the women's corresponding events is different, with no foreseeable emergence of a young force to rival the medal-winning potential of double Olympic champion, Tirunesh Dibaba, in the 10,000 metres, and former Olympic and world champion, Meseret Defar, in the 5,000 metres. After a world-leading 30:24.39 in Eugene, Oregon, and a couple of solid victories in the 5,000 metres, one notably against Meseret in New York, Tirunesh is looking like the kind of athlete who smashed the African record to win the 10,000-metre gold in Beijing.

She will be joined in the women's 10,000 metres by marathoner Werknesh Kidane, fourth in Athens eight years ago, and debutant Belaynesh Oljira, who also steps down in distance from the half marathon.

After dropping out of the 10,000 metres and finishing third in the 5,000 metres in Daegu, last year, Meseret is also regaining her finishing speed.

A narrow defeat to Cheruiyot in Rome and another strong summer ahead of London mean that she can again dream of at least a medal in London, following her bronze in Beijing.

The women's 3,000-metre steeplechase will surely get the pulse of Ethiopian athletics fans racing, with Sofia Assefa, now considered one of the world's leading athletes in the event. The Commercial Bank of Ethiopia's (CBE) Sport Club-athlete reduced her own national record by a whooping six seconds again this year, when she ran 9:09.00 in June, in Rome. She is expected to improve on her sixth place finish at Daegu, last year.

Ethiopia certainly lacks no tradition in the men's corresponding event, with Eshetu Tura's bronze medal in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow among one of the earliest excellent performances by an Ethiopian in the Games. Despite the bright early years though, Ethiopia has very much played second fiddle to Kenya in the event over the last forty years. It will be difficult to see things change this year again, with Kenyans Ezekiel Kemboi, the defending Olympic champion, and Brimin Kipruto, two-time world champion, expected to dominate in London.

Ethiopia's hopes for a medal lie largely with Roba Gari, the country's leading male steeplechaser for the last three years.

While still not at the level of Kemboi and Kipruto, Roba has also been consistently chipping away at his own national record time in the distance, stopping at 8:06.16 this year. He has also finished eighth, sixth, and fifth in the last three major championships: the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, and the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, indicating that he is getting closer to a medal this time around.

The situation in the men's and women's marathon is much more promising. A reading of the world lists indicates that Ethiopia will be taking three of the five fastest marathon runners with Ayele Abshiro, Dino Sefer, and Getu Feleke. But, there is a huge note of caution for the Ethiopian trio. All of them will be making their Olympic debuts and have never competed in a tactical major championship marathon race before.

The lack of experience is compensated by Asselefech Mergia in the women's field. The 25 year-old is a former world championships bronze medallist. Asselefech has competed in some of the world's top marathons, including London, and has an encouraging rolodex of half marathon and 10km victories in world-class races to complement her victory in the Dubai Marathon earlier this year. But, she does not have the distinction of being the fastest Ethiopian woman going to London.

Such an honour falls on Tiki Gelana, who, thanks to her victory in April's Rotterdam Marathon, is the country's new national record-holder. At 19, she is the youngest ever Ethiopian to be selected for an Olympic marathon squad.

Half marathon national record-holder Mare Dibaba, no relation to Tirunesh and Genzebe, is back to running in Ethiopian colours, after a two-year foray wearing Azerbaijan's green, blue, and red, and completes the marathon challenge.

The pursuit of Olympic medals will no doubt capture the headlines of Ethiopia's campaign in London. But, it hardly tells the full story of its Olympic experience.

Equally compelling are stories of athletes who have defied the odds to make it to the starting line in London. This never-say-never attitude is typified by Yanet Seyoum and Mulualem Girma, who are set to become the first ever Ethiopian swimmers to compete in the Olympics, due to universality places afforded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Elshadai Negash is the 2009 CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year High Commendation Winner for Sport and a regular contributor to Fortune.

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