A few hours before midnight on August 13, 2017, London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park threw a farewell party for a record of more than 2,000 athletes. These athletes, who had camped in London to chase gold, silver and bronze medals, had come from about 200 countries across the world. The 16th edition of the World Championships in Athletics, hosted by Great Britain is the International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) most important and biggest sporting event in its calendar. With a haul of five medals, Ethiopia trailed six countries, including the host, to stand at the 7th spot in the medal table.
Each time in the 34-year history of the world athletics championships, Ethiopia successfully participated in only one event. To date, the total number of medals collected by Ethiopia has reached 74, of which 27 are gold, according to sources endorsed by the IAAF, the athletics world governing body. In the London's championships alone, its rival Kenya has collected 11 medals, five out of which are gold. By spreading its participation across a variety of other non-traditional events, Kenya has been able to finish second in the medal table at the 16th edition.
The IAAF's World Championships, otherwise widely referred to as the World Championships in Athletics, contains at least 25 different athletic activities open for competition. Each categorically falls under one or the other of four main events such as running, walking, jumping and throwing. Each country may enrol three athletes per individual discipline. Ethiopian athletes have never been prepared in any except one traditional event, which is long-distance running. Hence their inability to bring home more medals than their Kenyan rivals did. This has been the reason for the shortcoming of the Ethiopian athletes ever since they entered the World Championships for the first time in 1983.
The Ethiopian athletes attended the inaugural World Championships in 1983, in Helsinki, Finland, where Kebede Balcha's silver in the Marathon was the only medal won. One year later, along with its communist allies, Ethiopia had boycotted the summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, United States (US). Like the other sporting events before it, the London's championships also included the usual top-tiers. The US is the uppermost, but Ethiopia and Kenya are also included in the list.
Team US has won more medals than any other country. This brings us to the fact that only four countries topped the medal table in the past 34 years. The US is dominant by staying atop a dozen times; Germany, the two-time top-tier at the event, comes a distant second. Russia and Kenya each perched at the top of the medal table once. Since the first event in Helsinki, 12 other countries have hosted a series of 15 editions of the World Championships and Ethiopia has continued to take its fair share of the medals in just one of the events.
Despite Ethiopia's consistent visibility and competency at the world championships, there were ups and downs both in terms of performance and medal counts. The downside of its medal position stood at twenty-second. The third spot was the closest it ever came to the most prominent position.
Ethiopia's fourth position, with seven medals, came in 2003, and that remains the nation's all time best. But it took Ethiopia years until at the 14th edition in Moscow, Russia, when 10 medals perched the country to the sixth place in the table. Kenya held a prominent position on the latter occasion as it had started to diversify the sporting fields it participated in.
Unlike at the Summer Olympic Games where almost all categories are allowed in the competitions, the competitions at the World Championships are prominently limited to the track-and-field events. Still, there are plenty of competitions worth paying attention to for the Ethiopian athletes to compete in. However, getting there seems a long way off. But the path to get there looked set when the Ethiopian Athletics Federations (EAF) elected Haile Gebrselassie as its new president, less than a year ago.
In one of his recent interviews published in the Ethiopian Business Review, a monthly English magazine, Haile sounded determined, among other things, to "make Ethiopian athletics great again."
A world-class athlete, who himself is more decorated with gold medals and records than anyone in his peer and category, Haile obviously drew an inspiration to rephrase his own pledge from the US president, Donald Trump's campaign platform, 'Make America Great Again.' Many of us gave him the benefit of the doubt and hoped our athletes would display a new strength in their performances at the London's championships.
And yet, our strength is still confined to one category of sporting event. A maximum of three-gold medals in World Championships remains the benchmark for our athletes to look up to. I would be sceptical about the credibility of the coaches and managers, who led Team Ethiopia. These team leaders who should be professionally qualified in the first place might not have just the right capacity in many ways.
Apparently, our athletes look very much in need of different tips and tricks to fill up their shortcomings.
We need to see the athletes representing Ethiopia to be just as proactive as the other athletes in the medal table. They don't look forthcoming and confident as the other top-tier athletes in their class do. Often, they appear too shy to take the first initiative even in terms of interacting with other athletes. I was one of those who expressed optimism seeing Haile taking charge of the presidency. Considering Haile's unique successful record in athletics, his presidency should have given a psychological boost to the young athletes. Success in athletics remains just as much a mental outlook as a physical one.
To ensure how much an athlete has been prepared to win, vitally depends on his or her psychological readiness to form the right attitude for a winning streak. Physical talent alone cannot contribute to the stamina needed to win. Without the psychological part in the mix, victory will not come.
And why is it that our athletes are unable to eye other sporting categories?
One such example is jumping, which is a track-and-field event, which itself can be redistributed into four different competitions. Many thought a high-jump competition requires a tall stature to achieve, and thus hard for Ethiopians, who are on the shorter side. The London's World Championships proved quite different though. With her 1.65m height, 30-year old Inika McPherson, a member of the US team for women high-jump event, was able to finish as a semi-finalist. To measure if our athletes can succeed in other events as successfully as they have on the track, they should be given the opportunities. Above all, they should be fit in both physique and psyche.
In all likelihood, such events as the pole vault, long jump and triple jump are also ideal athletic sports we should be competent enough to get a medal in. But we have to focus on how we can diversify the talents in the competitions.
If the Ethiopian athletes do not diversify the number of competitions and get prepared physically and psychologically, we would only get stuck counting the medals we had in the past. Because each time our athletes are confined to compete mainly in 5,000 and 10,000 meter distances and the marathon, we could get squeezed out from the gold medal list sooner than we are prepared to realise.
All we need to produce is genuine athletic talents physically tested and psychologically ready. We should not take our potential for granted. Let us give it a go and take the honor of our medals to a new level.
The gateway to the championships' honour is getting narrower, as more and more athletes from outside the top-tier athletic nations begin to catch up. Success in athletics doesn't come by fluke or through little hard work. A set of long-term goals and full-time commitments are prerequisites. As much as a gold medal brings honour both to the individual and the country, shortfalls take the grace away. By the same token, the quantity and quality of the medals won can say much about the society from which the winning athletes emerge.
The 16th edition of London's World Championships in athletics certainly took everything we thought we knew about athletics to a whole new level. From the opening and all through the end, a stark memory has been imprinted in our memory, at least for the next two years.
Esayas B. Gebre-Meskel (Mysoulqueen@gmail.com) Is a Behaviour Change Communication Adviser Who Has Spent More Than Seven Years At an NGO Working in the Same Capacity. His Brief Stint in Print Media Has Offered Him Ample Opportunity to Understand the Trends of J