Great Ethiopian Run: A Model for Sport Business in Ethiopia

The Great Ethiopian Run which has been organizing mass running events since 2001 has been working as a non-profit organization. When the new Ethiopian Charities and Civil Societies Proclamation came to effect, the organization changed its status into a business entity as a private limited company late in 2012. The ETB 9million it collected through the years was distributed to four regional governments to use for similar purposes. Despite its identity change leaders of the organization explain that its core objectives will not be compromised- it will continue doing what it used to do. 

Endale Zelalem, 38, has participated in all of the Great Ethiopian Run mass competitions except one, when he was so acutely ill that he couldn’t make it. He has now hung 10 of the medals he has been awarded for his participation at home proudly. He regrets that he lost two other medals when he moved to a new house. He and his friends take part in the competitions and train for a month or two. They always work to improve their time though it has been difficult to do so in the past few years because of ‘aging’ as he puts it. Nevertheless they now have regular mass sport trainings and competition schedules including football matches they hold every two weeks.

The initiative for this type of mass sport engagement by Endale and his friends first came with the introduction of the Great Ethiopian Run (GER) 10km road race competition in 2001. “After that competition I became introduced to physical exercise and sports and my health and physique improved, now I’m in good shape” Endale told EBR. “The sporting events have changed the minds of many people I know” he adds. The Great Ethiopian Run has altered the mentality of thousands of people and encouraged them to participate in mass sports and competitions.

 The GER, which launched its first mass contest in November 2001 with 10,000 participants, was envisioned by the legendary athlete Haile Gebrselassie. It aims to nurture mass sports to the general public, build the positive image of Ethiopia to the outside world, as well as serve as an arena to give new athletes a chance for international competition. Initially, it was supported and managed by foreigners who have experience in this kind of event organizing. But since 2005 Ethiopians have taken over the entire management.

Participants in the major November mass race have increased to 37,500 in 2013 from 10,000 at the commencement. The competitions have also been diversified and are held in most regions of Ethiopia. The mass race competition of different types and objectives has been held 96 times since it started and the 100th competition will be held next June at the second Coca Cola Series. The Coca Cola competition is a compilation of three races and in 2014 it will be held this month, June and September.

Several renowned athletes including Haile Gebresillasie himself, Sileshi Sihine, Gebre-Egziabher Gebremariam, Birhane Adere, Worknesh Kidane  and Tirunesh Dibaba to name a few have participated and won the competition. Famous athletes from other countries such as Paula Radcliff from Britain, Paul Tergat from Kenya and Hicham El Guerrouj from Morocco have also participated as guests. The number of mass run competitions held all over the country has now reached 13 annually.

The GER also engages in humanitarian activities. It has for example worked in the promotion of the MDGs, HIV/AIDS, traffic accident prevention, and women’s rights in Ethiopia. Since 2005, around 16 humanitarian organizations have been beneficiaries of the around 4 million birr it mobilized. 

“We have been very successful in disseminating messages that help in creating awareness among the participants and the general public” says Dagmawit Amare, Strategic and Innovation manager at the GER. However, the increasing tendencies of using the event as a venue for political purposes by some individuals and groups have been a headache for the organizers. “It is not fair to use an event organized for a specific purpose to promote another agenda,” she complains. “They should prepare their own means to promote their intended goals”.

The cost of preparing the competition also has grown up substantially. The total cost for preparation of the November mass race was 3.5 million birr in 2001. That has now doubled to 7 million. Its main revenue comes from registration fee from participants and sponsorship payments. Total revenue has doubled from 4.2 million birr in 2001 to 8.5 million in 2013. Registration fees have also increased from 30 birr in 2001 to 100 in 2013. The prize for winners has grown from ETB 10,000 to 50,000. 

The GER has started a new race, the Haile Marathon race last year. This international race which gives new athletes the opportunity to participate in an internationally recognized race and get experience for participation abroad, awards winners  ETB100,000 for both categories, men and women.

Ones the properties of the GER were confiscated and the organization started a new venture as private company last year the organization’s objective has never changed. 

“There isn’t much difference for the organization whether it is an NGO or a business entity,” says Dagim Teshome, Operations and Marketing Manager at GER. “Simply because it hasn’t been run by donation  and instead is run by registration and sponsorship fees which are revenue generated, by delivering promotional services”.

Several of its activities testify this, according to Dagim. Even though the registration payment of 100 birr doesn’t cover the costs for the T-shirt, medal and water provided to participants, we haven’t made any change as a profit making institution, he told EBR. Rather it subsidizes the cost from the sponsorship revenue. The price of participating in mass races for example in the UK is from 30-60 pound Sterling, if we want profits we would have simply doubled it, Dagim said. Other activities of the organization as an NGO have continued though it has changed to be ‘profitable’. GER for example used to allow those who aren’t able to pay registration fees to run for free and it still gives similar services for organizations such as Abebech Gobena Orphanage and others to participate in the mass run competitions.

The organization is also providing a successful event management model with international standards to the booming event management business in the country. “It has been providing a great lesson for event organizers,” says Dagmawit.

But for ordinary people like Endale who have been acquainted with mass sports with the introduction of GER, the participation in competitions has helped them to stay fit and enjoy the companionship of friends and others in the sporting event. The role GER played in popularizing mass sport in Ethiopia will remain in the minds of generations to come. This will be on top of showcasing that sports can be run in a business model. This will perhaps be an eye-opener for many sports clubs in the country which either receives government budget or company funds to survive rather than generating revenue to survive and sustain on their own.


2nd Year . April 2014 . No.14


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