Belayneh Densamo

Belayneh Densamo

The Celebrated Marathon Runner

Born in 1965, Belayneh Densamo is one of Ethiopia‘s legendary
marathon runners. Although he won many tournaments since his first international marathon in Japan in 1986, none of them compare to Belayneh’s victory in Rotterdam in 1988, where he broke the world record with a finishing time of 2:06.50. Belayneh held this world record for 10 years, the third longest span without the record being broken since the event was organized at the 1896 Olympics. EBR Adjunct Writer Abiy Wondifraw spoke with him about his victory in Rotterdam in 1988 and his disappointment about not running in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

In 1988, a formal dinner was held in Addis Ababa. The country’s top military officers, government officials and journalists gathered to honour emerging marathoner Belayneh Dinsamo and long distance runner Abebe Mekonnen. At the end of the ceremony, the stage announcer encouraged the athletes to come forward and say few words. Having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant that same night, a proud Belayneh took the stage.

He was asked if he has anything to promise to the public. He said, “I will bring the marathon record back.” The hall erupted with joy for Belayneh’s optimism while journalists were frantically wrote down his words. Abebe seemed concerned though. “If I were you, I would not promise this. Breaking a marathon record is difficult,” Abebe told him. Then he said something that left Belayneh more anxious. “Journalists were writing down your pledge. It will be all over the media tomorrow morning. You are a soldier. If a soldier promises to the people, he should deliver. Soldiers never try. They do.”

The athlete went home dismayed. When his eight months pregnant wife was about to ask him how the dinner went, she read his face that there was something wrong. “I think I made a huge mistake today,” he said before explaining everything to her.

Belayneh only had four weeks before he had to prove himself at the Rotterdam Marathon. But this time, he knew the preparations would not be easy since he had to take care of his pregnant wife, who was having trouble sleeping at night.

“She convinced me to ask her mom to come and stay with her while I moved to a hotel to focus on my training,” he remembers. Three days after his wife delivered their first baby girl, he left for Netherlands. Even though Belayneh arrived as the defending champion, Djibouti’s Ahmed Salah took all the media attention after settling a massive agreement with the organizers who pledged to give him a USD50,000 prize if breaks the world record. Salah lead the race at the 35th kilometer while Belayneh chased. The two athletes covered the next five kilometers in less than 15 minutes and Belayneh edged ahead in the last 2 kilometers.

“Reading the clock on the lead vehicle, I knew I was in world record pace,” he says. In the final 500 meters, Belayneh knew he was seconds away from making history. “I was ready to make one last push beyond the limit. I did not care if I died breaking the record.” Crossing the line at 2:06.50, the time then stayed as the world marathon record for a decade. Belayneh felt nauseous for few minutes. “When I came to my senses, I heard the loud speaker announcing the new world record. I danced shouting Ethiopia…Ethiopia… Ethiopia.”

The athlete, who came from a farming family in Sidama, became a national hero for bringing the record back to Ethiopia 23 years after it slipped out of Abebe’s hand. The police radio program made a call to the public to propose a name for Belayneh’s new daughter who brought luck with her. Kibrewosen, an Amharic word meaning “record” came on top. There were some celebrities among the people who proposed the name Kibrewosen at the show. Tamagn Beyene (prominent entertainer and activist), Mamo Wolde (Olympic marathon champion) and Melkamu Tebeje (a famous singer) supported the name.

“That was perfect. I knew the record would go away someday and it did. But I have it at home,” he says. Kibrewosen was not just the name of his daughter, who is now a public health graduate working in the United States at a children’s hospital. Belayneh eventually opened a popular café around Addis Ababa Stadium with the same name. Kibrewosen Snack Bar stayed in business for 15 years before its name was changed by a new owner.

Many Ethiopians remember him for keeping his name in the world marathon record book for a decade after that incredible victory in 1988. But during his prime as an athlete, Belayneh was unbeatable marathoner. He dominated the Rotterdam Marathon, winning four times. He showed to the world his strength winning the Tokyo, Fokoka and Moscow Marathons. Coming second at Tokyo Marathon where Belayneh was leading the race all the way to the stadium entrance is among the regrettable incidents in his career. “The race was mine to lose. But I mistakenly followed the lead vehicle to its parking area,” says the smiling Belayneh. “By the time I realized, it was a bit late. I saw the Japanese athlete going into the stadium. I could not catch him.”

The biggest regret in his career, though, is not winning at the Olympics. Preparing for the Seoul Olympics, which came only three months after setting the world record, he was the favorite to win the marathon. Yet being in the peak form of his career was not enough to go to the Olympics. Ethiopia joined the countries that boycotted the games, complaining that holding the event in South Korea weakened the struggle for Korean Unification.

He withdrew from the national team for 1992 Barcelona Olympics after he received death threats from unknown groups who demanded ETB 50,000 and USD 1,000. “I told them I have no cash because I used almost all my money to buy a house.” They kept sending him intimidating letters and giving him phone calls. Later, a firebomb was thrown at his house at night. “The country was in a political transition period. There was no police. I had no place to hide my family (pregnant wife and daughter). I knew my dream to go to the Olympics was gone. I rather started to think about leaving the country.”

The family took a trip to Japan, a country he adores, to assess if they could move there. After staying for just two weeks, a sudden earthquake in Tokyo stunned Belayneh’s family into making a U-turn.

“We moved to the US later for different reasons. I just wanted to make things better for my children. I wanted them to have very good education and life. That was the project in my mind.” he says.

Now that project is close to completion. The athletics legend who worked as an assistant sport trainer at a school and Limo service provider is now planning to come home as a proud father. “My second daughter Bethel is married and now holds master’s degree in Education of science. My third daughter (Ruth) will be a computer science engineer after four months.”

Driving his Mazda 626 model sport car, which he kept for the last 30 years after he was awarded it in Rotterdam, on the streets of Addis, Belayneh is weighing the jobs and projects to pursue. “I would be happy if I could join athletics in coaching. I can commit myself for any role the athletics federation may offer,” he says the 53 years old. “As a retired runner from the older generation, I did not take save money from my career. But I will consider all the opportunities.”

8th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2019 • No. 70

Abiy Wendifraw

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