Ethiopia Tries to Capitalize on Its Running Fame

The Great Ethiopian Run drew about 36,000 participants in November. New training centers and a new marathon could help attract top international runners.(Photo: Benno Muchler)
The Great Ethiopian Run drew about 36,000 participants in November. New training centers and a new marathon could help attract top international runners.(Photo: Benno Muchler)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — On a warm Sunday morning in late November, about 36,000 people set off on the Great Ethiopian Run, a 10-kilometer race across the center of Addis Ababa. Diplomats, students, merchants, Orthodox priests, homeless children and professional runners were among the participants. It is one of Africa’s largest road races, hosted in the capital of a passionate running nation that has dominated long-distance competitions for the past two decades.

Haile Gebrselassie, one of Ethiopia’s most successful runners and businessmen, founded the race 12 years ago. He wanted to bring a big race to his home country.

Though finishing times are world-class, Gebrselassie’s goal of making the race an attraction has been somehow elusive. Top foreign athletes have stayed away, making the race an Ethiopian affair.

So while Ethiopia is a paradise for runners with its combination of high altitude, breathtaking tracks and mild climate throughout most of the year, there is no major international running event in the country. But things might change soon. The first Haile Gebrselassie Marathon is scheduled for October. It will be held in Hawassa, a city in southern Ethiopia, and could be more attractive to top foreign athletes. At an elevation of 5,600 feet, Hawassa is lower than Addis Ababa, and first prize is 12 ounces of gold, worth about $19,000.

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