A look at the Ethiopian Athletics team aiming to light up London 17
By Zecharias Zelalem –
Ethiopia will forever be synonymous with good coffee and athletics. The East African country has a rich sporting tradition. Ever since the legendary Abebe Bikila’s barefooted conquest in marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Ethiopian male and female athletes have racked up dozens Olympic and world championship wins, which cemented this country’s reputation as a long distance running powerhouse. The green bibs are always among the favourites at any world class athletics competition. London 2017 won’t be any different.
What makes London 2017 somewhat different is the level of expectation Ethiopia’s athletes are shouldering when the competition gets underway tomorrow. Despite registering some statement performances at both last month’s U-18 World Athletics championships in Nairobi and the African Junior Championships in Tlemcen Algeria a month prior to the event in Nairobi, enthusiasm surrounding the national athletics squad has somewhat dampened among Ethiopians in recent times. This is mostly due to Ethiopia’s collective underperformance at recent Olympic and World Championships gatherings. Particularly disappointing have been the country’s male athletes, among whom an heir fit for the throne of the illustrious Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebreselassie is yet to be found. At last year’s Rio Olympics, Team Ethiopia brought home a single gold medal won by Almaz Ayana. It was the country’s smallest gold medal haul at an Olympic Games since returning with Derartu Tulu’s 10,000 m gold medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. The male athletes in particular, were an utter disappointment. Ethiopia’s men, who were once a lock for the 5k and 10k events in any competition, won a grand total of zero gold medals at the Rio Games and the last IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015. Ethiopia has relied heavily on the Dibaba sisters and Meseret Defar and until Almaz Ayana’s explosive arrival on the scene, there appeared to be somewhat of a dearth of talent among Ethiopia’s women athletes, meaning that the likes of the ageing Tirunesh Dibaba wouldn’t have anyone to hand the batons to.
For Ethiopian athletics fans, the national team’s dip in performance at major competitions was seen as a disaster of grave proportions. Constantly being routed by Britain’s Mo Farah and a frustrating inability of some athletes to translate their Diamond League coups to success on the greatest stages was (and is) a constant source of chagrin. The flow of Ethiopian born athletes going on to achieve successes in the colours of other countries also left many calling for heads to roll at the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. Throw in last year’s scandal with several Ethiopian athletes named as having used performance enhancing drugs and one could understand why confidence in the country’s athletics may have been at an all time low.
Cue the arrival of one of the linchpins of Ethiopia’s storied athletics history, double Olympic champion Haile Gebreselassie. In November of 2016, he would be elected President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. He stated that he would be ready to implement changes to address the issues facing Ethiopian athletics and vowed to bring in a change of results as well as expand sporting talent pool.
Nine months into the job, Haile Gebreselassie is set to see Ethiopia head off to its first major international event under his reign. Under Haile’s presidency, Ethiopia’s prodigies saw a very productive 2017. At the above mentioned African Junior Championships in Algeria, Ethiopia’s up and comers topped scored victories in less traditional events such as both the boys and girls 4×400 meter relay races and topped the standings, winning a grand total of 38 medals including 26 gold. The team’s performance in Algeria was promising.
In Nairobi, the venue of the IAAF U-18 World Championships and the backyard of Ethiopia’s athletics arch rival, Kenya, a decent twelve medal haul including four gold medals, ranked them fifth in the overall standings. Despite this, the inspirational performances at youth level in 2017 haven’t exactly inspired outright confidence among Ethiopians, always culturally inclined to be skeptical. Among other things, the ages of several of Ethiopia’s “junior” athletes brought some to question the legitimacy of the achievements in Algeria and Kenya.
Nevertheless, we will soon see some of those youth starlets be provided with a platform to muzzle their critics as they are thrown into the fray that awaits them London. The show starts tomorrow and it’s time to let the athletes do their thing.
Who will don the Ethiopian national team kit in London? In Part 2, we will take an event by event look at the men and women selected to represent Ethiopia.