Bridging the Gaps in Ethiopia’s Quest for Athletics Excellence

Ethiopia has a rich and proud history of athletic excellence, particularly in long-distance running. Ethiopian athletes have won 59 Olympic medals, including 23 gold in track and field events. This result is comparable to the 113 Olympic medals, including 35 gold, that neighboring Kenya has achieved. Ethiopia has a high altitude, which helps to develop athletes’ cardiovascular systems. The relatively cool climate is also ideal for training—the solid cultural emphasis on running also, in a way, prepares youth for athletics. Kenya’s dominance in the continent came mainly in recent years, since 2008. From the lack of infrastructure to poor administration and insufficient funding, Ethiopia’s athletics require a solid intervention to overhaul the sector, especially in short and medium-distance running, EBR’s Brook Genene reports.

The 10,000-meter race in Budapest, the recent World Athletics Championship in Hungary, was one of the most exciting and nail-biting ends Ethiopian athletics has seen. Gudaf Tsegay and Sifan Hassen were neck and neck, closing in on the finish line before something unexpected transpired. Their competitiveness reminded them of what happened between Haile Gebresilasse and Paul Tergat in the Sydney Olympics. As they drew closer to the end, Sifan suddenly fell to the ground. Gudaf took advantage to bring Gold to Ethiopia, with Letesenbet Gidey and Ejegayehu Taye completing a sweep. It was a maiden 10000-meter gold medal for Gudaf, who won the 5000-meter distance just a year ago.

Gudaf’s scintillating victory brought joy throughout the country. What makes Gudaf different is her path to 10,000 meters, just like Sifan, starting from the middle distances. This experience begs the question of the advantage of starting in middle-distance races and working your way up to the long distances.

There are a few 10,000-meter races apart from the Olympics and World Athletics championships. The number of 5000-meter races is also decreasing from year to year. So, the athletes must choose between competing in middle-distance races like 1500 meters; or going directly into the marathon early in their career.

“Why we are not working on middle distances is, I think, a cultural thing. We won our first Gold in the marathon, and we continued to build on that by winning 10,000 meters. All our coaches are predominantly long-distance coaches. There is a belief that we can’t do much in the middle and short distances.” said Girmachew Kebede, a sports journalist currently doing his Masters in Sports and Entertainment management in Qatar.

While Ethiopia is known for winning long-distance races, there has yet to be much success in the middle and short distances. Even though there are improvements in races like women’s 1500 meters, Ethiopia still needs to catch up compared to its Kenyan counterparts. Furthermore, dominating the middle distance races is advantageous for those who want to test themselves in long distances as it allows them to finish at high speed during the last laps of the race. In most cases, Sprinting capacity sets athletes of longer lengths apart from the pack.

But there isn’t to be a particularly unique thing the Kenyans are doing to help them dominate the middle-distance races. Ferdinand Omanyala and Faith Kipyegon are reaping the benefits of their hard work rather than a systemic approach from the Kenyan Federation. “Faith has made a few changes in her training regime. For example, she is the first elite female athlete to go to the campus that Kenyan men are famous for, where you stay away from your home and its comforts for five to six days a week. I think that has helped her as well as being able to work with Coach Patrick Sang.” Kenyan Sports Journalist James Wokabi explains.

Sifan and Faith managed to take their success from 1500 meters to 5000 meters because of their exceptional talent, according to Leoul Taddesse, a Sports Journalist at Canal+ and Bisrat FM. One of the reasons mentioned in line with the gap in success between Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes is that there were very few track races within a calendar year, forcing athletes to participate more on roads because of the sizeable chunk of prize money. However, the recent increase in diamond league and indoor track competitions has seen athletes participate in races starting from 800 meters.

The prize money plays a crucial role because many of the athletes in Ethiopia use their running talents to support themselves and their families. Most see it as a way of beating poverty as well. So, as long as there is a tournament that pays a significant amount of money, that is where they will participate. They can’t afford to participate in several selected races within a calendar year.

The issue of failing to be competitive in short and middle-distance races, in addition to the long-distance race Ethiopia is known for, has exposed the Athletics Federation to heavy criticism. The criticism started earlier at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, where Ethiopia won only one gold medal while neighboring Kenya got four. The issue of why Ethiopia hasn’t maintained its leading position in the continent has once again surfaced in the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, where Ethiopia won only two Gold medals while Kenya got three.

Many raised matters regarding the selection of athletes and disagreements within the organization as leading causes for the lack of team spirit to maintain the country’s status in the glorious era in which giants such as Haile Gebreselassie, Kenenisa Bekele were stunning the world for their breathtaking teamwork with Asefa Mezegebu and Sileshi Sihin; while the likes of Derartu Tulu, Tirunesh Dibaba, Meseret Defar and other were unequivocally reining in their categories because of the team works and coordination skills with Gete Wami, Ejigayehu Dibaba and others. Now, many raise the absence of a clear plan and strategy for the sector as another pivotal in the Athletics challenge for short and medium-range distance and other long-distance running in and off-tracks.

One of the glaring issues in Ethiopian Athletics is the inconsistency in results. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics was one of the worst performances in Ethiopian Athletics history, marred with controversies. The Ethiopian delegates only managed to secure one Gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. In the Rio Olympics, Ethiopia got eight medals. In 2022, the Eugiene World Athletics Championships became a successful competition. Ethiopia got four Gold, four Silver, and two Bronze medals. The recent Budapest World Athletics Championships turned out to be somewhere in between.

To address the consistency issue, navigating a wide range of races can be one solution. Ethiopia’s success in short-distance races like 100 and 200 meters is minimal. There have yet to be athletes who managed to qualify for major tournaments in these tracks.

There has been some success in middle-distance races, especially in women. In the women’s 1500 meter, we have seen in the last two years in international competitions showing Ethiopian women athletes in several podiums. Even though exceptional athletes like Kenyan Faith Kipyegon and the Ethiopian-born Dutch Sifan Hassan have been dominating the scene, many athletes who have shown their ability to compete at this level, including Diribe Wolteji, Freweyini Hailu, Hirut Meshesha, and Birke Haylom. Diribe Wolteji, who has been behind these elite athletes in several races, stunned the world as she turned the tables on Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon to win the inaugural women’s world mile title in a world record of 4:20.98 last September 23 in Riga, Latvia. As Diribe is so young, while Kipyegon and Sifan are aging, they gracefully leave the stage for her to reign.

Regarding the 800 meters, Ethiopian women athletes have yet to be able to win medals in major tournaments. However, in the men’s category, Mohammed Aman won the Gold at the World Championships in 2013 in Russia. Mohammed had won Gold earlier in the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul in 2012. However, the notable success in the Olympic Games in men’s 800 meters was his 6th place in 2012 in London.

Bizuayehu believes that the gaps in the middle-distance races can be attributed to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation paying less attention to these events. There also “isn’t a proper recruitment system for talented and qualified promising athletes.” In addition, there are no frequent competitions at school levels that can help athletes take the next step. “The federation does not organize a single track competition in the country that meets the current international standards”, he states.

There also needs to be adequate and standard infrastructure to stage tournaments. Building on past success and competing in the highly competitive race becomes manageable only with modern training facilities needing to be improved. In contrast, Kenya has several world-class training facilities, such as the Iten training camp in the Rift Valley. The Kenyan government and the private sector support athletics and provide funding for training and competitions.

Insiders believe the Athletics Federation should focus more on current results and invest more in future talents. Sometimes, older athletes go to competitions meant for early beginners, and disagreements surface on selecting athletes for major tournaments. These issues need critical interventions and planning for Ethiopia to reap future success in the areas.

11th Year • October 2023 • No. 122 EBR

Brook Genene

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