Ethiopia has built a stellar reputation for producing long distance running superstars over the past fifteen years thanks to the multiple medal winning efforts of Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Meseret Defar. But, as the country bids farewell to all but one of the golden trio and welcomes a new generation of stars at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Elshadai Negash, Special to Fortune sees the possibility of the country grapplling with new realities as it seeks to continue its dominance in the sport.
Sixty years ago next month was when it all started.
After joining the Olympic movement a few years earlier, Ethiopia decided to send its first ever contingent to the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. And, as a sign of the times, the journey was arduous – taking not less than eight days through four connection flights. After this marathon journey, the wide-eyed group, who had never before left the shores of their country, landed in Australia’s west coast. The less-travelled athletes knew little about their competitors or how to strategise for winning success. And the rest of the country received news about the exploits of their team weeks after the events took place. Back then, just safely landing in Australia and taking part in the Games was an achievement in itself, at a time when other African countries were struggling to break free of colonial oppression.
Fast forward six decades and the squad heading to the sandy beaches of Copacabana and the Barraha athletics stadium in Rio will complete their journey in less than 24 hours. This is thanks largely to the direct flight from Addis Abeba to Sao Paulo. Thanks to previous multiple races, the internet, tracking apps and expert advice, athletes and their coaches heading to the Games will have had information on all their rivals – from height, weight and personal bests to more detailed statistics, like the last lap of their last 30 races – weeks, if not months, before the action kicks off in Brazil.
Unlike their wide-eyed compatriots, who were executing the orders of their Emperor and traveling to represent their country, Ethiopian athletes can now expect major financial rewards for competing, medalling and becoming Olympic champions. Although there is no direct financial compensation for winning Olympic medals, athletes can expect to see the base fee of their kit endorsement double after winning gold in the Games, as well as witnessing a major hike in their appearance fees for invitation races. After previous triumphs, athletes have also received various financial and in-kind rewards from both the federal and regional government, as well as rank promotions and other rewards from their clubs.
But with the rewards and god-like adoration from the public comes the pressure to perform on the biggest stage of all. An expectant public, generously spoiled mainly by the multiple medal winning efforts of Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and Meseret Defar, since the trio made their Olympic debuts in Athens 2004, will be eager to see repeat gold medal winning performances in Ethiopia’s stronghold events – the 5,000 and 10,000m.
In Rio, however, Ethiopia will complete a generation change that sees only Dibaba and fellow 10,000m runner Gelete Burka from the 2003-2013 generation retaining their place in team. Despite a third place finish in the Virgin London Marathon in May, Bekele’s 2:06.30 performance was deemed insufficient to make the marathon team. And after showing initial signs of a happy return from maternity leave in the earlier part of the year, Defar’s comeback to the outdoor track was plagued by injuries before it ended prematurely in June.
At 30, and after years of earning adoring nicknames like the ‘baby-faced assassin’ and ‘the young ostrich’, Dibaba is now one of the oldest members of team Ethiopia heading to Rio (the oldest is 1,500m runner Aman Wote, who turned 32 ahead of the Games). Dibaba will make her fourth appearance at the Games (an Ethiopian record) and despite an outstanding return to form and fitness since the birth of her son, Nahom Sileshi, in April 2015, she will play second fiddle to the woman who is destined to lead Ethiopia’s generation – Almaz Ayana.
At 24, and fresh from a track season that saw her miss Dibaba’s world 5,000m record by a second in Rome, Ayana is the new star of Ethiopian distance running. Her stock rose last year when she made piecemeal work of beating Dibaba’s younger sister Genzebe to the world 5,000m title at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China. She cemented her tag as the clear favourite to win the 5,000 and 10,000m double in Rio when she condemned Tirunesh to her first ever defeat over the 10,000m in 17 attempts. To add icing to the cake, it was Ayana’s first ever 10,000m race won in an all-comers record time of 30:07.00!
In many ways, Ayana is a breath of fresh air compared to the usual narratives of distance running success in Ethiopia. She hails from the Beninshangul-Gumuz region, which has virtually no track record of producing athletes except for national football team striker, Salhaddin Seid. Initially a mediocre 3,000m steeplechaser, Ayana only decided to shift to the 5,000m in 2013. And unlike Dibaba’s sit-and-wait approach to major championship races, Ayana takes on the competition from the early stages, increasing her pace in the middle third before virtually strolling across the finish line with no challenger in sight.
Will Genzebe recover in time?
While Ethiopian fans can take solace in Ayana’s outstanding form over the last eighteen months and her marked consistency in both championship and one-day meetings, they cannot afford to relax about the other medal prospects going into the Games.
Three months ago, the world was at the feet of Genzebe Dibaba. Coming off a spectacular 2015 season where she broke the 23-year-old world 1,500m record in Monaco and ran the fastest ever 800m split in a 1,500m world championship final to take gold in Beijing, Genzebe capped the season by winning the 2015 IAAF Women’s Athlete of the Year awards.
The first three months of the year also saw her break the world indoor 5,000m record in Stockholm and make easy work of beating Defar to win the world indoor 3,000m title in Eugene, USA.
The tell-tale signs that 2016 would not be a dream season started when she returned from Eugene with a foot injury. She flew to Munich in late March to consult with the famous specialist Dr. Hans-Mueller Wolfart, but her troubles continued until June as she could not return to training. The outdoor season opened in May with some eye catching performances from Ayana and Genzebe’s rival, Faith Kipyegon, in Doha, but there was no sign of the 1,500m specialist anywhere near a running track.
In mid-June, Genzebe headed to Spain to join coach Jama Aden on a summer training camp in Barcelona. Her world began to unravel a week later when Spanish authorities arrested Aden and a physiotherapist from Saudi Arabia on suspicion of supplying banned substances to athletes.
Undeterred, Genzebe returned to action a week later in a 1,500m race, but dropped out of the contest after three laps and was seen sobbing profusely as she was stretchered off the track. With the deadline set by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) to obtain qualifying times for the Games looming, Genzebe made a last ditch attempt two days before it closed and clocked 3:59.80 in a lowly meet in Barcelona to make it to the Games. She heads to Rio undertrained, not race sharp and without the aura of invincibility she had in 2015.
And then, there is the ‘other Dibaba’
Mare Dibaba (no blood relation to Tirunesh and Genzebe) was the surprise world marathon champion in Beijing after a famous cum-from-behind victory at the Bird’s Nest stadium. Hers was Ethiopia’s first ever women’s marathon gold winner in World Championship history and signalled the start of better marathon fortunes.
But the 26-year old, who returned to competing in Ethiopian colours after a short-stint running for Azerbaijan, failed to repeat her surprise victory at the ultra-competitive London Marathon in April this year, finishing fifth in 2:24.09.
Will the real Mohammed Aman stand up?
After finishing fourth in his debut Games in London four years ago, 800m runner Mohammed Aman was billed as the next big thing in men’s middle distance running, especially in rainy races where Kenya’s 800m Olympic champion and world record holder, David Rudisha, would fail to dominate.
In the absence of Rudisha, Aman proved his burgeoning status by winning gold a year later at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Russia. But after changing coaches in 2014 and struggling with injury, very little has gone right for the national record holder who heads to the Games on the back of another inconsistent season.
Inconsistent is also the middle name of Ethiopia’s 5,000 and 10,000m male runners as they head to Rio and challenge the utter dominance of Britain’s reigning Olympic and world 5,000 and 10,000m champion, Mohammed (Mo) Farah. The Briton will be comforted by news that two of his strongest rivals have not even made the team heading to Rio.
Five years ago, when Farah’s dominance of the two events started at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Ibrahim Jeylan clipped his wings with a spectacular finish in the men’s 10,000m final to deny him a historic double. After a brief comeback in 2013 where he finished second behind Farah in the Moscow World Championship 10,000m finals, Jeylan struggled for form and fitness and will miss the Olympic Games yet again despite a late attempt at securing a place.
Even more crushing will be the no-show of Yomif Kejelecha, many people’s version of a “Kenenisa Bekele fifteen years younger”. After dominating youth and junior competitions between 2012 and 2015, the 19-year-old caused a stir earlier in the year when he won the world indoor 3,000m title in Eugene and was destined to lead the country’s 5,000m challenge in Rio. But the youngster struggled for form throughout the outdoor campaign and was eventually beaten to a place in the team.
Four years ago in London, Dejen Gebremeskel broke the hearts of millions of Ethiopians watching worldwide when he made a late tactical error to lose sight of Farah in the 5,000m final. Now back to fitness after a few injury-hit seasons, Gebremeskel will be out to seek revenge.
Revenge will also be the keyword for Hagos Gebrehiwet, as he hopes to improve on a succession of bronze medals from the last World Championship 5,000m races in Moscow and Beijing. But the man who is seen as the most likely challenger to Farah’s dominance is Mukhtar Edris, Ethiopia’s former world cross country junior bronze medallist.
Like Gebremeskel and Gebrehiwot, Edris has also been plagued with inconsistency since making his senior major championship debut in 2013. But he has transformed his fortunes in 2016, running a world leading time of 12:59.23 and leading the diamond race after wins in Shanghai and Eugene. And, unlike his two teammates who have fallen flat when Farah and other rivals kick at 200m, Edris has repeatedly come up with strong finishes in his races this year to give Ethiopia a fighting chance at gold over the 5,000m.
Ethiopia may be sending experience to Rio for the 5,000m, but a trio of Olympic newcomers will have their hands full with Farah and Kenya’s chasing contingent led by world half marathon champion Geofrey Kimworor in the 10,000m. Former world junior champion Yigerem Demelash leads the team after winning the trial race ahead of Tamrat Tola and Abadi Hadush, who is the national 10,000m champion. All three will be making their senior major championship debuts and are relatively-unknown quantities.
Can we trust in Sofia?
After a couple of minor medals – silver in London and bronze in Moscow – in major championships, Sofia Assefa missed out on a medal in Beijing last year and has a lowly seasonal best of 9:18.16 from the Eugene Diamond League in May.
But a ban on Russian athletes from competing in Rio 2016 could mean that Assefa and teammates Hiwot Ayalew and Etenesh Diro can expect to challenge for medals this year.
Breaking new ground
The Olympic Games are not just about the close finishes, the fights for a medal and other storylines. This year in Rio, there are also stories of courage and breaking new ground that make the Games universally appealing.
At 36 and with the best days of his marathon career behind him, Yonas Kifle would not have expected to take part in the showpiece event. But after fleeing Ethiopia to Luxembourg, he will form part of a ten-person Refugee Olympic team that will make its debut in the Games along with athletes from the DRC, South Sudan, Syria and Iraq.
After becoming the first Ethiopian to win an African Cycling title in 2015 and again breaking new ground when competing at the Tour de France cycling race in July, cyclist Tsegabu Gebremariam will represent Ethiopia in the individual time trial in Rio. It will be the first time Ethiopia will be competing over the event in the Olympic Games since 1968. Thanks to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) quota of universality places, Ethiopia will also be sending swimmers for the second successive time to the Games, with Robel Kiros (men) and Rahel Fisseha (women) scheduled to compete in Rio.
And for the first time since 1972, African champion Askale Tiksa and Yehualaye Beletew will represent Ethiopia in the women’s 20km walk race.
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