Tough Times Ahead For Long Distance Athletics

Recently, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced a plan to revamp the Diamond League by reducing the series and canceling the 5000 meter race, starting in 2020, which leaves the 3,000 meter as the longest race on the tournament. After the announcement, Eastern Africa countries, including Ethiopia, which have historically performed very well in long distance races pushed back against the IAAF’s decision, saying it will hurt not only athletes but athletics. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendiferaw, who spoke to athletes and sport administrators reports on the justification behind the decision and the reaction from Eastern Africa countries.

When news broke on Monday, March 11, 2019, that the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) council approved a decision to cancel the 5000 meter race in the Diamond League starting in 2020, the Ethiopian national athletics team was having lunch at Arart Hotel, where they were preparing for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Denmark. Sitting among his compatriots, Solomon Barega, the fastest 5,000 meter runner since Kenenisa Bekele clocked 12:40 in 2005, first thought it was a joke.

“I had already received the upcoming Diamond League schedule for the 5,000 meters long ago. I thought it was not real. But later, I checked the IAAF website and learned the 2019 Diamond League tournament would be the last one with a 5000 meter race. That is crazy. That is a blow to my career,” Solomon told EBR. “The decision shocked the younger athletes, who became runners watching world beaters like Haile Gebresilassie, Kenenisa, Tirunesh Dibaba and Derartu Tulu, who dominated the 5,000 and 10,000 meters races. This is a decision that can turn our dreams into nightmares.”

IAAF’s move to set 3,000 meters as the longest distance track race in a Diamond League triggered a strong protest from East African countries, including Ethiopia. These countries have dominated the middle and long-distance running races, including the 5,000 meter for half a century since the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. Ethiopian and Kenyan athletics federations condemned the decision of the global athletics administrative organ immediately.

According to Dube Jilo, technical director at the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), the decision is ‘very annoying and heart breaking’. “How can they take away the disciplines we have been working on for so long? We communicated with them immediately to reconsider their decision.”

Haile Gebresselassie, arguably the greatest distance runner of all time, wasted no time in expressing his disappointment to Reuters. “It is a sad decision that will disproportionately affect Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as East Africa as a whole. Some Asian countries have also been making strides in middle- and long-distance. At a time when the [governing] body needed to exert its maximum effort to boost athletics worldwide, it has made a decision that is tragic and unfair. Its [Diamond League] prestige will also be affected. Middle- and long-distance competitions were among the main draws at the time myself, Kenenisa and others competed. It will deprive fans of the chance to watch some of the world’s best athletes.”

IAAF Diamond League twitter followers were recently polled to find out what they thought were the best races in Diamond League history. Most of them picked the 5,000 meter final event last year in Brussels. During this race, Solomon Barega became the 4th fastest runner ever over the distance, and broke the Diamond League record with a time of 12:43.02 in a thrilling finish.

The fact that the 10,000 meter race was previously dropped from the Diamond League, added to the recent change, is all about money, according to Dagim Teshome, an athletics enthusiast with an educational background in Sport Administration. “Track meets are not as attractive as road races for companies to sponsor as they take relatively short times to complete and have very short live coverage. So for sponsors to be attracted to these meets, they need phenomenal athletes like Haile Gebreselassie and Usian Bolt who are TV friendly, outspoken, and who can be brand ambassadors,” Dagim argues.

“After the Haile-[Paul] Tergat era, most of the athletes that came to the scene are shy, afraid of TV cameras, can’t speak proper English or are not brave enough to ask for translators. Let’s face it, the IAAF needs money to organize the meets, and the long distance athletes are not selling themselves, or making their distance attractive for the brands,” Dagim explains. “The distance races might be attractive for the audience, but the money from the audience is not comparable to the sponsors.”

“Running is a way of life for the Kenyans and Ethiopians. What the IAAF is doing is not fair to the African continent, as these distance races are the only ones in the track and field that Africans excel at. One thing they should know is that Africa contributes over 50 member federations and taking away these distances is deserting these member federations with a slim chance of shining on the big stages,” says Dagim.

Dube also says having 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter races at the Olympics and World Championships is not enough. “Athletes need competitions and championships to stay on track races. Otherwise, they might prefer to switch their career early to road races where they can make enough money. Because there is no 10,000 meter race, we spend millions to organize races where our athletes meet the minimum required time for the tournaments. Now 5,000 meter will add to the cost. Leaving the financial issue aside, nobody should expect incredible runners like Haile and Kenenisa at the major tournaments if the athletes are coming from road races,” Dube says.

Dagim fears the worst is yet to come. “Indoor long distance races are about to be history and will most probably be out of World Championships and Olympics.”

While waiting for IAAF’s response to their request of reconsideration, East Africans might need to come up with a plan B. “It will not be good news for others if we Ethiopians and Kenyans boycott World Cross Country events and some road races. But it is better to negotiate. When Sebastian Coe came to the [IAAF] presidency, we hoped he would bring back the 10,000 meters and he actually promised to do so. Now he cannot sit by and watch the 5,000 meters vanishing,” Dube says.   

Solomon, 18, who is already putting his name next to the two all-time greats Kenenisa and Haile with his record at this age, is feeling the burn. “Frankly speaking, it is already affecting my preparation. It is not just me. I feel for those youngsters working hard in forests and climbing up mountains. I feel for Ethiopian athletics. I know the Federation is working on it. Let us see how it goes.”

8th Year • Apr.16 - May.15 2019 • No. 73


Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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