The Making of Elite Athletes

Ethiopia Broadens its Focus To Recruit Future Talent

The 2018 World U20 Championships, also known as the World Junior Championships, took place at Ratina Stadium in Tampere, Finland from July 10-15 2018. Solomon Barega and Tilahun Haile were among the 36 Ethiopian athletes who participated in the Championships. They come from Quante, a small town located in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) state, which has similar topography and weather conditions as Bekoji, known for producing many of Ethiopia’s Olympic medallists. As EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wondifraw, found out unlike the previous trend of recruiting from only a few places, more athletes are now coming from all corners of the country including Quante, to represent Ethiopia on the national stage.

While billions of people prepared to watch the third place playoff of the FIFA World Cup in Russia on the afternoon of July 14, 2018, residents of Quante, a small town in Geta Woreda of Gurage Zone in SNNP state, were getting ready to watch the 2018 World U20 Championships 5,000 meter final, that took place in Tampere, Finland. In that specific race, the residents of Quante were represented by two of their young runners, Solomon Barega and Tilahun Haile.

Solomon, 18, one of the best prospects of his generation, has already made his home town of 100,000 fall in love with athletics. In the last two years, he has represented the country in major competitions, including the 2017 World Championships in London. He dominated the 5,000 meters at the 2017 World U18 Championships as well as the World U20 Championships and African U20 Championships held in 2017 and 2016, respectively, winning all gold medals. When preparing for Tampere, Solomon wanted to defend his gold medal at the 2018 World U20 Championship, also known as the World Junior Championships and as well as gaining experience on the international stage. When he ran in different international tournaments in the past, he learnt how important experience is.

“Initially, I was not thinking of medals while participating at the World U20 Championships last August. But eventually I started to dream big,” Solomon told EBR. “I was happy I took the gold medal home. At the same time I learned a lot. “

Solomon says running in championships is different. “The pressure, psychology and tactics were all new to me. If I’m going to win in the big tournaments and Olympics, I need to learn more,” says Solomon. “I grew up listening to a lot about the best athletes in the country. Now I am trying to learn how Kenenisa [Bekele] and Haile [Gebresilasie] became legends.”

While learning from the legends, Solomon himself seems to already be inspiring his friends from the countryside. Tilahun, the Ethiopian Junior Championships winner in 5000 meters last year, is already building his reputation with unique gestures to the audience, on and off the track. Unlike most of the country’s shy athletes who are criticised for failing to cash in on their success, the 19 years old wants to consider the economic value of winning. He also believes runners have the responsibility to make more people love athletics. 

“We need to entertain the audience. Does it make sense to the viewer if I just win a race and take the cash home? That why I love [Usain] Bolt. When he comes to the stadium, forget the spectators, even his opponents want to see him doing what he does,” says Tilahun. “But you need to win first. When you win, entertaining people will not be difficult. You take it as a motivation to win more.”

Although Solomon and Tilahun didn’t win any medals, Ethiopia finished fourth at the Championship with nine medals, following Kenya, Jamaica and the United States.

Tolosa Kotu, long distance coach of the national athletics team, is happy to witness more athletes coming from other places. “Solomon, Tilahun, Anduamlak Belihu and even Muktar Edirs are from a different pool. Recently, we have seen strong women athletes from the state of Tigrai. We already have young athletes from the state of Amhara while the state of Oromia is still producing amazing runners. We used to focus on a few places to recruit talent. That was wrong. We need to hunt the best people from every corner of the country,” says Tolosa.

Solomon thinks many other runners will join him from his home town in the years to come. “I can see youngsters who work hard to become runners. Watching us makes them motivated. The area is perfect for running. The weather, food and topography are ideal. Most of the students have to run to get to school. I was taking care of the herds while collecting firewood for my parents. I had to walk and run for half an hour to reach ‘Quante’, the school where I attended my primary and secondary education.”

Getahun Lemosa, head of Geta Woreda, believes that the area can become just like Bekoji, a small rural town located in Arsi Zone of the state of Oromia, known for producing the majority of the country’s Olympic medalists. “Our Woreda can become the ‘Bekoji of the south’ if athletes in the area can put in more effort. The likes of Solomon and Tilahun succeeded with hard work. But we need support to assist the potential athletes.”

The Geta Woreda, with a total annual budget of ETB 97million, cannot construct athletics facilities to produce better-mentored runners. But the nature of the area is in the youngsters’ favour. Geta is located at an altitude of 2,500 meters above the sea level which gives the athletes an edge. The Woreda is known for its production of barley, like Bekoji. Tilahun argues his hometown deserves some effort from stakeholders. “We used to do the training by ourselves because there were no coaches. There are some improvements now.” 

“We need to remember that nature alone never produced world class runners.  We need coaches. The youth deserve the basic training. That is how we can produce the new stars,” Solomon concludes.

6th Year . July 16 - Aug 15 2018 . No.64

Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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