Ethiopia: Why Did One Ethiopian Town Produce So Many Athletic Stars?

Kitted out in a pink tracksuit against the chilly air, Yobsan Alemyahu is a regular at her local athletics training ground, not far from her home town Bekoji in central Ethiopia.

With the hope of one day competing in the 5,000 or even 10,000 meters, the 10-year-old sticks solidly to her 6-day-a-week training regimen.

“I started running by following my brother,” he told DW. “I was eager to join him.”

After her first race, she says she was hooked.

“I went with my brothers without [my parents’] knowledge and I came in second,” she recalls excitedly. “[My parents] were so happy and planned even more [training] for me.”

Yobsan’s passion for running is hardly surprising considering her roots: Bekoji is the birthplace of many famous Ethiopian athletes, including world-record holder Tirunesh Dibaba, as well as her sisters, Genzebe Dibaba and Ejegayehu Dibaba.

An athlete’s training ground

Bekoji is filled with budding young athletes like Yobsan who dream of running their way to the podium like their role models. But, the training can be tough.

“They have to climb the 200-meter-high hill, up and down,” trainer Sentayehu Eshetu told DW. “You give them the training based on their age. They run in a zigzag through the forest to develop flexibility.

In terms of natural running terrain, Bekoji has it all: Forests, mountains and altitude. It’s also known for its cool conditions year round. Eshetu says even established athletes like Kenenisa Bekele return to Bekoji once a week as part of their training regimen.

“Those who train themselves tirelessly in this naturally gifted area won’t give up,” he says. “Whenever they go to other areas that have warm weather conditions [the athletes] won’t be affected by the weather change.”

Eshetu began his career almost 40 years ago as a sports teacher. He went on to coach prominent athletes like Derartu Tulu and Tirunesh Dibaba. Now, he works at the Bekoji Athletic Club, offering valuable advice to the town’s future track stars.

The price of pressure

But Eshetu admits Bekoji’s current crop of young athletes haven’t met the town’s naturally high expectations.

Hoping to build on past success, the Bekoji Athletic Club enrolled 193 promising runners over the past decade. Now, 133 of them run for different clubs. Lemecha Giram is the only young athlete from Bekoji competing at an international level.

“We need to give [the athletes] more attention and work on it,” says Eshetu. “Simply establishing something [like a club] will not help.”

The director of the club, Hailu Lemma, believes some of the fault lies with the newer trainers.

“The trainers have been certified as first or second level athletics coaches,” he told DW. “The big problem, it that the person who joins the training center is concerned more about personal interests and not about the sport.”

Not all athletes are equal

Back on the club’s track, 18-year-old Segni Demeska is gearing himself up for the 400-meter sprint. Born in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, he moved to Bekoji for his training. He’s now considered one of the most promising talents here.

“My aim is to replace our record-holder athletes,” he told DW. “In this year’s national contest, I came in third for Oromia.”

Right now, he’s working on building his stamina for the 1,500 meters. An avid fan of Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge, he dreams of eventually running — and winning — the 5,000 meters.

With proper support and training behind him, Segni is one of the lucky ones. But the Bekoji Athletic Club isn’t the only pathway to athletic success in this town.

Former athlete Fetia Abdie trains promising runners from low income families. Her group gets financial support from a local women’s association. Abdie says many of the trainees are young women and girls who often struggle to get the proper nutrition needed to reach their potential.

“The trainees we have now are good and strong,” she told DW. “They work and know their purpose. But it can be difficult.”

Re-building the chain of success

It’s hard to ignore how Bekoji’s almost-mythical reputation as a breeding ground for world-class athletes now clashes harshly with reality: Once considered an athletic village of-sorts the town’s only stadium has now become a grazing field, forcing many hopeful athletes to look for training areas elsewhere.

Olympic gold-medalist and world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie was born in Assela, not far from Bekoji. The former president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) believes Bekoji is slipping from the athletic rankings because the community isn’t getting proper attention or support.

“If someone asks me why that happened, I say, one: A lack of focus here,” he told DW. “Secondly, the things that used to be done in schools are no longer there.”

Samuel Brehanu, the director of training and research at the EAF says a study is underway to determine why Ethiopia is suddenly lagging in the international athletics arena. But, he thinks Ethiopian runners are still among the best in the world.

“I do not accept the opinion about poor performance in the long distance,” he told DW. “However, have we done things properly in this area? We have not.”

For his part, trainer Sentayehu Eshetu believes all that stands between failure and success is hard work. Then, one day, Bekoji may reclaim its status as the cradle of champions.

“There is no reason for us to not return to our previous passion if we work properly,” he says.

“But we have to start from scratch.”

Edited by: Ineke Mules