In the shadow of Abebe Bikila’s colossal fame is Addis Gezahegn, the first Ethiopian and African woman to win a major marathon. She finished the 1991 Rotterdam Marathon in 2:35:04, a record at the time for an African woman. She also competed in Tokyo in 1990, the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, and a in a total of 30 international tournaments.
She usually ran in men’s races, as separate races for women were almost nonexistent. Addis participated in the annual Abebe Bikila Marathon for men in Addis Ababa in 1989, her first ever 42 kilometers. Her spontaneous performance and non-fatigable physique could not pass unnoted by talent explorers of the national squad. At 155 centimeters high and weighing 45 kilograms, Addis still runs as a life experience, though she retired in 2011. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw, chatted with the sport’s stuntwoman about her captivating story.
Addis Gezahegn’s place in Ethiopian athletics history was guaranteed 30 years ago when she competed in the men’s marathon race named after the Olympics legend Abebe Bikila. She had to run with men because there was no separate race for women. Her name has since been well known for being the first Ethiopian woman marathoner.
Addis started running in high school. She used to compete in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races for Ayer Tena Secondary School in Addis Ababa. Later on, she even won the 800- and 1500-meter races at the school’s championship in 1983, at the age of 14. However, that did not bring her to a professional athletics career. She rather completely left athletics. Addis didn’t return to the running track or any other competition after taking her school leaving examination.
Almost a year after completing high school, Birhanu Girma, Lieutenant and Coach, who loved working with emerging athletes, went to her village where she resided. She remembers what the coach said to her back then. “Addis, listen to me. I know you had a great performance at the school’s championship and I also heard that you have immense potential and can succeed in athletics. Now, I want you to join the group of girls training with me.”
“He did not just invite me to join the girls in his team. He also paid for my transport,” remembers Addis. The chance to work with the coach opened a door of opportunity. Addis joined Bankers Sport Club as an athlete and also as staff at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE). She competed in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter races for the club.
Her international career trajectory launched when she finished 5th at the Jan Meda International Cross Country Championships and thus qualified to compete at the World Cross Country Championships in 1987 in Warsaw, Poland. She continued to race at the next two championships in Monte Carlo, Monaco and Aix-les-Bains, France.
The late Nigussie Roba, the then national team coach who has among the shapers of modern Ethiopian athletics, was among those closely following Addis’s progress and strengths. “He used to watch us preparing for the World Cross Country Championships. One day, at the end of training, he approached me and said ‘I have been watching you for a while. You have endurance and fatigue resistance. Please go for the marathon. You will be successful. Be ready for the Abebe Bikila Marathon.’”
Addis, who had only ran 15 kilometers at previous championships, thought the coach was joking. She responded, “marathon is tough. I do not think I can make it.” Nigussie insisted she could do it and advised her to extend the distance she covers for training.
“The marathon was only two months away. During training, the longest distance I could cover was 30 kilometers. I told him about it but he did not change his mind. ‘I want to see you in the marathon,’” Addis remembers.
That morning, the spectators packing the streets of Addis Ababa did not realize they were to witness the making of history. They were screaming and cheering up the athletes as they always do. Later, the crowd started shouting even louder as they spotted a girl running shoulder to shoulder with the men in a men’s marathon. That was her marathon debut and it was the very first time Ethiopians saw an Ethiopian woman run in a domestic marathon competition.
“It was really tough but the crowd was almost running with me. I remember all the encouragement. There were people following me on foot, bicycle, and motorbike. I would not have finished the race without them. There was this old lady waiting for me carrying water in a container. She poured water over me and wished me the best of luck.”
That race was like a curtain raiser for Addis who turned into a marathon runner. She went to the 1990 Tokyo Marathon just few months before finishing second at the Rotterdam Marathon in April 1991 where she broke the African record. Addis started preparing for the Barcelona Olympic Games after running two other marathons in Berlin and again in Rotterdam in September 1991. In Barcelona, where the great Derartu Tulu made history as the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold, Addis was running for her own history.
After the Olympics, Addis’s athletics career faced new challenges. According to her, the club was convinced that having a marathon runner was like wasting money. They thought the marathon would only benefit the national team in international championships and not the club in domestic races. “That was heartbreaking. I was coming back from the Olympics and felt like a kid rejected by her own family,” she says.
Addis moved to Switzerland in 1995 where she still resides. She managed to find a club and sponsors but her international career was over as she could not run for any country other than Ethiopia. She competed in several competitions until she retired in 2011.
“The last time I remember the local media covering or reporting on me is when I went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics,” says the unsung hero sharing her forgotten history. Addis, now 51 and a mother of two, sounds positive and grateful to Ethiopian Athletics Federation officials who remembered her on a special event organized to commemorate Olympic heroes last December.
“I was too emotional when I learnt that was happening. I still feel that. I thought my name had disappeared from Ethiopian athletics history books. I am happy now.” EBR
9th Year • Mar 16 – Apr 15 2021 • No. 96