Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Ethiopian runners dominate the elite side of the sport but mass participation races with an emphasis on health, fitness and recreation are becoming increasingly popular across Ethiopia
When Haile Gebrselassie sat down with Brits Peter Middlebrook and Abi Masfield some fifteen years ago to start mass participation races in Ethiopia, he knew he was bringing a practice into a country which is synonymous with elite distance running success.
“We brought this practice to Ethiopia by looking at how others delivered road running abroad,” said Gebrselassie, who announced his retirement after the Great Manchester 10km in May.
“Many people associate mass participation races with health issues or recruiting prospective athletes but here, it has social and economic factors beyond that. Some years ago, it was considered taboo to wear shorts and run in the streets. Nowadays, everyone is running freely. There is a strong element of culture attached to it.”
After the first edition of the Great Ethiopian Run took place in Addis Ababa with 10,000 participants in November 2001, organisers have staged thirteen further editions of the annual 10km race; eleven editions of a women’s only race; several half marathons and one edition of the Haile Gebrselassie Marathon in Hawassa; and several charity-oriented races.
These races across the country have generated thousands of dollars each year in support of charities that work on a variety of causes ranging from women’s empowerment to people with disabilities.
Armed with years of race organisation experience, the Great Ethiopian Run on Sunday (14) ushered a new era of mass participation running in Ethiopia with the introduction of the Dasani 7.5km road race.
Supported by Coca Cola which manufactures Dasani water, the race drew over 10,000 participants, mainly composed of performance-oriented athletes who are serious about pursuing a healthy and active lifestyle. It replaces the Coca Cola Series of races which have been held for three of the past four years.
“People [in Ethiopia] believe in running,” says Kigori Macharia, the Coca Cola country manager for Ethiopia. “We believe that people should actually take control of their own lives in terms of how they live. I think running is the great way to express that participation.
“Our role is to support this initiative; it also gives us the chance to let people know that we sell global leading brand Dasani water as well.”
Mohammed Berga is one runner who claims not to have missed any of these races since their inception four years ago. “I run these races with my friends and we use the opportunity to have fun, socialise, and test our fitness levels,” he said.
“When I started running in these races, we were only [a group of] two. But we pushed our friends to join us and now we race as many. We are always eager for the next one to come around.”
The Dasani road race also hosts an elite 15km which starts one hour before the mass participation race. With ETB 60,000 (approximately USD 2,900) on offer for the winner, it boasts the highest prize money for winning a road race in Ethiopia.
Acccording to general manager of the Great Ethiopian Run Ermias Ayele, that is just one motivation to take part in the Dasani road race.
“When mass races started in Ethiopia, the awareness was not that much big,” added Ayele. “Nowadays, our races attract a carnival atmosphere, and the Dasani race has a course certified by AIMS with sizeable prize money.”
Elshadai Negash (with assistance from Bizuayehu Wagaw) for worldrunning.com