For long, Ethiopian athletes are known more for long distance running, largely 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. Meanwhile, relatively short-distance running disciplines, including the 800m, 1,500m and 3,000m, were largely ignored despite having an immense potential. However, at the Doha World Athletics Championship, Ethiopia came close to rewrite its history after its elite athlete, Lemecha Girma, edged close to win a gold medal in the 3,000m men steeplechase championship where he won silver by microseconds. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw, who was at the championship held at Doha, Qatar, reports.
The 3,000m men’s steeplechase medal had never been Ethiopia’s target in any major international championships or Olympic games in the past. Stated globally as ‘Kenya’s Event’, this has always been a discipline left for Kenyan men. Kenyan runners snatched every gold medal in the steeplechase for the last three decades since the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
At the Doha world Athletics Championship, however, Ethiopia came close to rewrite the story as just one-hundredth of a second separated the defending champion Conselsius Kipruto and Lemecha Girma, the 18-year-old Ethiopian athlete, at the 3,000m final in Doha, Qatar. The spectators at the Khalifa International Stadium and the TV commentators had to wait for the photo-finish result which was announced 36 seconds later. Kipruto then took the gold and Kenya’s dominance in the men 3000m steeplechase was extended.
While the Kenyan fans were celebrating the win and their Ethiopian neighbours were applauding for the silver medal, it was easy to see remorse on Derartu Tulu’s face. The Olympic gold medalist and the vice president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation could not believe Ethiopia had lost the gold medal by a fraction of a second. “We have enough reason to celebrate it. But losing the first place in this fashion leaves anyone with a sense of deep regret,” said Derartu while she was leaving the Khalifa International Stadium.
For Lemecha, this was his third international competition, beating the experienced Kipruto and repeating the historic victory of Haile Gebresilassie against Paul Tergat was a bit tough. But his success is big enough to make fellow Ethiopians dream. He was not only millimetres away from taking the gold medal at the world championships, but the young athlete also broke the Ethiopian record, stopping the clock at 8:01.35.
Although this was the first time Ethiopia took a medal in the 3,000m men’s steeplechase in the World Athletics Championships, the result was not unexpected because the Ethiopian team included the Diamond League winner Getnet Wale, who came fourth in Doha and Abraham Sime who clinched the 2,000m men’s steeplechase gold medal at the Youth Olympics Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina last year.
The bronze medal at the 1980 Olympics by Eshetu Tura was the only medal Ethiopia had won in the 3,000 m men’s steeplechase for decades. This year alone Getnet, Lemecha and Chala Beyo (all young athletes) repeatedly broke the Ethiopian record held by Roba Gari (8:06.16) in 2012.
The coach, who is behind Ethiopia’s recent emergence in the less regarded field of athletics competition, Teshome Kebede, thinks that the country has the talent that the 3,000m steeplechase demands. “The demanded attributes are somehow similar to that of the 5,000m. Endurance, strength and speed are the major elements. If we have very good 5,000m runners, we can have competent steeplechasers too,” argues Teshome.
However, working with many youngsters, including Lemecha, at Tirunesh Dibaba Sports Training Center where he was serving as a deputy technical director for five years, he identifies the challenges that need to be addressed. “The focus is on the 5,000m and the 10,000m because those are the disciplines we have proven great at in international competitions. People in the athletics management have this bias and the same preconception drives young athletes who have the potential to become great steeplechasers to instead dream about the 5,000m and the 10,000m, preconceptions which are now gradually disappearing.”
The preconception begins with the Amharic word ‘Mesenakel’ (translated as ‘obstacle’) which is used to name the steeplechase, according to Teshome. “No one prefers to face obstacles. Despite having all the necessary talent, young athletes think the hurdles are too high and the water jump is hard. We also do not have the facilities for the athletes in the training centres to become familiar with the steeplechase.”
Of course, the strangeness to hurdles and the water jump is something anyone can notice at the local steeplechase races. The same can be noticed in athletes specializing in the discipline as they look uncomfortable whenever they approach the obstacles. Years back, a video went viral on social media that showed an athlete almost stop at every hurdle in the steeplechase at the Ethiopian championships.
Young athletes do not even consider steeplechase as a rewarding sport financially. “I remember years ago how one of the young athletes reacted when we visited the house owned by Sofia Assefa (An Ethiopian runner in 3,000m women’s steeplechase and silver medalist at the 2012 Olympics),” recalls Teshome. “The athlete asked me if the house belonged to her. Later he came back to me to say ‘I am staying in the steeplechase course’.”
Now Kenyans have realized other countries are diversifying into other races and Ethiopia’s recent signs of progress in the 800m, 1,500m and 3,000m steeplechase were well noted. As the World Championship ended, it was reported that the Kenyan Athletics Federation invited the Ethiopian coaches in these fields to go to Nairobi for an experience sharing.
Kenya’s best performers are moving to road races and retirement, leaving the country’s athletics badly in need of new winners. Although the progress of the Ethiopian athletes in the 3,000m steeplechase may come at the right time as Kenyans are in a transition period, only time will tell if this is a headway to the real power shift in East African athletics.
8th Year • Oct.16 – Nov.15 2019 • No. 79