12 August 2012

Ethiopia: Searching For the Next Kenenisa


The London 2012 Olympic Games once again proved that Ethiopia will have a tall order in its bid to find the next Kenenisa Bekele, after the next generation of Ethiopian 10,000m runners simply failed to turn up in London, the British capital. Elshadai Negash Special to Fortune looks at the possible pretenders and asks why they did not make it to London.

It was a moment that inspired the country's most popular musician to stay up all night and compose arguably Ethiopia's most famous sports song.

Eight years ago, this month, the young star, Kenenisa Bekele, then just 22 years of age, and his compatriot Sileshi Sihine slowed the pace down to wait for a struggling Haile Gebrselassie during the men's 10,000m final at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. This gesture, atypical in a sporting world full of egos and determination to topple a rival in pursuit of success, and the song Tariq Tesera by Tewodrose Kassahun, a.k.a Teddy Afro, melted the hearts of millions of Ethiopians, back home, and highlighted a rare glimpse of the athletes' human and compassionate side.

Fast forward to 2012, a similar stage on the cold summer evening was held at the Olympic Stadium in London. After winning virtually every major track honour including three Olympic gold, five world championship titles, and breaking no less than six world records, many expected Kenenisa to go on and win a historic third Olympic title, despite enduring two years of in action with injuries.


The last two Caucasians before Galen Rupp to beat an Ethiopian in an Olympic 10,000m final were Finland's Lasse Viren and Belgian Emiel Puttemans, who finished ahead of Miruts Yifter in the 1972 Munich final. Since then, Ethiopians have won five gold, two silver, and four bronze medals.

Three Ethiopians have held the world 10,000m record in the last fifteen years - Miruts Yifter, Haile Gebrselassie, and current record holder Kenenisa Bekele.

The greatest of them all, Kenenisa Bekele, has only lost twice over the event since making his debut over the event in 2003, a period of nine years.

The women, while not as equally prolific, also hold a winning streak of 12 years in Olympic finals over the event. The last woman to beat an Ethiopian in an Olympic 10,000m was Portuguese runner Fernanda Ribiero in the 1996 Atlanta final.

Well, that did not happen. Instead, Kenenisa looked like a shadow of his old self before struggling to finish fourth, well behind the race winning Brit, Mohammed Farah, and his American training partner, Galen Rupp, with Kenenisa's brother, Tariku Bekele, completing the podium positions.

As far as Olympic 10,000m races are concerned, it was neither classic nor ran at anything close to a pace that would differentiate men from boys. For years, Kenenisa had taken the event to unchartered territory, resisting the efforts of those adept at running quick laps at high tempo intervals, like Eritrean Zeresenay Tadesse, or speedsters who wanted to test his abilities in the final laps of the race like Sileshi Sihine.

The level was much lower here, but Kenenisa was not his usual super-human self. There would be no passing of the torch from the great of the past to the protégée of the future. And Teddy Afro, quite content with entertaining a crowd of ex-pat Ethiopians in London, neither produced a tune for the occasion.

With Kenenisa now 30 and edging closer to a career in Marathon, Ethiopian athletics fans are worried that the country's stronghold over the event is over as there seems to be no capable replacement in sight. The million dollar question to emerge from Ethiopia's London 2012 campaign is, therefore: where will the next Kenenisa Bekele come from?

In many ways, the melodrama over the "loss of gold" should not be a hyperbole given that Tariku was able to win bronze, his first ever major championship medal in five attempts.

The 25-year old former world junior 5,000m champion will see bronze in the world's showpiece event as a marker that he is ready to mix it with the big leagues especially after enduring two years with a myriad of health issues and personal problems. London 2012 was also his first championship over the 10,000m and so he will continue to offer a very good base speed.

But how about hopes outside the Bekele family?

All fears of replacement were lessened last year when Ibrahim Jeilan fulfilled the promise of his earlier years winning a shock 10,000m world title at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Much like his junior years where he proved unbeatable in a 10,000m race, if he was fit and in contention, until the final 400m of the contest, the 23-year old won Ethiopia's only gold medal of the championships, a skin saver in the otherwise embarrassing event held in the Far East.

The problem with Jeilan is that he is as good as only the times he shows up. After winning the world junior title in 2006, Jeilan failed to even qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games, missed the 2009 world championships through injury, and only showed up in top class competition in 2011 before again succumbing to Achilles injury following his Daegu victory facing a battle against time to make it to London 2012. In the only 10,000m he ran before London, Jeilan failed to finish the race in Belgium, unable to book his place in London.

A locality acclaimed for producing many of the renowned Ethiopian distance runners, Bekoji, a town in Arsi Zone of Oromia Region, witnesses mornings enjoyed by many aspiring youth.

Injuries also played a crucial part in denying Imane Merga, the 2011 world cross country champion, a place in the team after he also displayed much promise with a fourth place finish over the 10,000m at the 2009 and 2011 world championships. The 25-year old was plagued by injuries throughout the summer before dropping out of both the 5,000m (Paris) and 10,000m (Birmingham) qualification races.

Lelisa Disasa and Abera Kuma, both 22 years of age, at least, tried to surmount Gebregziabher Gebremariam for the last available place in the men's 10,000m with a respectable performance in Belgium, but their slow finishing times saw only Disasa picked as a reserve before being later withdrawn by the Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC). It was an unfortunate incident that has many observers fuming as he could have replaced the injured Gebregziabher, who had to take painkillers in order to take part in the race.

Evidently, Ethiopian athletics has seen the emergence of many young athletes over the last five years fighting for the rights to Kenenisa's throne, but many of them did not have the staying power of the 30-year old runner from Bekoji. A number of them gave up on trying to break into Ethiopia's 10,000m squads and moved to the half and full marathon with instant success. Others simply gave up on trying to make Ethiopia's competitive major championship squads and have sought greener pastures elsewhere.

The very best of this bunch is Atsedu Tsegaye, the current Ethiopian half marathon record holder. The 20-year old showed early promise by finishing sixth over the 5,000m in the World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada, and was touted as a top future 10,000m runner before shifting to the roads in 2012 with instant success. His 58.47, not only lowered Deriba Merga's national marathon record, but also upped his market value for a possible autumn marathon, ruling him out of a career in 10,000m.

Tilahun Regassa also looked a promising prospect over the event when he won the 2009 national 10,000m and that year's Great Ethiopian Run 10km run, but quickly switched to the half marathon the following year to earn the largest payday by an Ethiopian athlete that day, winning the Abu Dhabi Half Marathon and a grand prize of 300,000 dollars. But like Jeilan, the 22-year old has been plagued by injuries and tried to make a brief reappearance this year in Hengelo, the Netherlands, although his 27:18 was not enough for a place in the team.

Other athletes including Tadesse Tola, the 2007 Ethiopian champion and All-African Games silver medalist; Eshetu Wondimu, 2008 African championship 10,000m bronze medalist; and Azmeraw Bekele, twice national 12km cross country champion and 2010 Great Ethiopian Run 10km winner; all showed promise over the 25-lap race in the early parts of their career, but shifted quickly to the full marathon for financial reasons.

Bilisuma Shugi did not even get to run in Ethiopian colours in his short career. Seeing that his chances of representing Ethiopia over the event were limited, the 23-year old shifted allegiances to Bahrain and went on to win the Asian championship and Asian Games 10,000m titles for his adopting nation.

Despite the emerging talent of the previous five years unable to fill Kenenisa's shoes, the future does look bright with a number of young pretenders looking promising.

The pick of the bunch is perhaps Yegerem Demelash, the 2012 world junior champion who was so impressive at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain, this year that he even earned the respect of the Kenyan coaches at the event. The 18-year old may not yet have the finishing times of Kenenisa at that age, but he does possess raw talent, plenty of speed, and a hunger to be the best, something not seen in other runners of his age.

While he is very much in the early stages of his development, the 2011 Great Ethiopian Run 10km winner Mosinet Geremew looks like a bright prospect over the event as well. The 20-year old has yet to compete over the track in the event, but his 10km best time of 27.53 makes him one to watch out.

And Gebretsadik Abraha, silver medalist over the 10,000m in Moncton two years ago, is also getting closer to an elusive senior championship appearance after a career on the roads with tenure on the track.

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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