Best runners in the world now hail from Ethiopia
BOULDER, Colorado They couldn’t keep up with him. No one else in the Bolder Boulder field could. What chance did two fans have of running alongside 19-year-old Ethiopian sensation Tilahun Regassa? Still, the green, yellow and red Ethiopian flags they carried in his wake represented more than Regassa’s country.It symbolized Ethiopia’s flag flying atop the international running world.Ethiopians going one-two in both the men’s and women’s 10-kilometer race Monday were only the small print in the book Ethiopians are writing on the world running scene.”They’re definitely the top running nation in the world,” said Fasil Bizuneh, an American of Ethiopian descent who finished 15th.Remember Kenya and its running factory? Ethiopia has turned it into a Stop & Shop. In the past three Olympics, in the big three distance races (the 5,000 meters, 10,000 and marathon), Ethiopia has won 22 medals, including 10 gold. Kenya has won eight and one, respectively.In the last three world championships, Ethiopia has won 20 medals, including nine gold, to Kenya’s 12 and five. Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele owns the world records in the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 he won both at the Athens Olympics and Haile Gebrselassie, the 2000 Olympic winner in the 10,000, owns the marathon mark. Tirunesh Dibaba, who won Olympic gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 in Beijing, has the women’s world mark in the 5,000.If you look closely, that lion on Ethiopia’s flag is wearing Nikes.”Ethiopian athletes are believers,” said Hussein Makke’, a Beirut-raised manager of about 60 Ethiopian and many Kenyan distance runners. “This is the key right there. They are believers and they believe in themselves and they thrive on this confidence.”In Ethiopia, running is what football, basketball and baseball combined is in the U.S. It started in 1960 when Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon in Rome running barefoot. Since then, children have found no problem running up to 10 kilometers both ways to school every day. Ethiopia has a national club system that finds talent in the hinterland and brings it to the capital of Addis Ababa for training.”They get top athletes employed, and they make very good salaries,” Makke’ said, “plus bonuses, plus awards.”How good is the life of the Ethiopian running star? Dibaba makes an estimated $500,000 and drives the streets of Addis Ababa in a BMW 750. Hospitals, banks, even the government are rushing to sponsor Ethiopian runners.Gebrselassie, the first marathoner under 2 hours, 4 minutes, has parlayed his earnings into a 10-story office building, Ethiopia’s first modern cinema and the biggest road race in Ethiopia, the Great Ethiopian Run.The African championships in Addis Ababa last May filled the 30,000-seat national stadium, with another 100,000 outside trying to get in.”I talked to African journalists who say they’ve been to European soccer matches that weren’t that loud,” Makke’ said.Ethiopia’s poverty doesn’t match those of surrounding East African countries, and many runners come from stable homes. However, Ethiopia’s running program makes some saves that make UNICEF proud. Take Regassa. When he was 3 years old living in the village of Nazret, his parents divorced and his mother left him with his father while she moved in with a son in Odana Nebe Dukem. His father died when he was 15 and showing promise as a runner. However, he could not move in with his mother. Odana Nebe Dukem is four to five hours away by walking. It is not accessible by car.Instead, for three years he lived in the streets. He worked for a stone company and when hungry, he’d go to a local hotel where they’d give him food.He developed stomach problems, which he continues to have, but local coaches told Makke’ about his promise. He found him last year living in the streets of Nazret. He hadn’t run competitively in five years, but the Ethiopian system put him in a hotel, fed him and trained him. In his first half-marathon, in Lille, France, last year, he ran a 59:34, nearly breaking the junior record. He beat countryman Tadese Tola on Monday by 19 seconds in 28:17, the third-fastest time in Bolder Boulder history.”I have a car now,” said Regassa, who won $5,750. “I’m living in a rented home, and I’m about to buy a house. It’s a big difference.”John Henderson: 303-954-1299 or email@example.com
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