Why Ethiopia’s running success is about more than poverty and altitude

The strong record of the countrys athletes is often attributed to these factors, but hard work, planning and ingenuity play a key role

It is 3.15 am and I have just woken from a fitful four-hour sleep. I am already wearing operating shorts and I quickly pull on a T-shirt and step outside. It is pitch black and my breath turns to mist in the cold air. Fasil is washing his face at the outdoor tap. He has a night off his undertaking guarding a half-constructed house and is staying with Hailye. He beams, clearly surprised that I maintained my term about joining them for this session. “ Ante farenj aydellum ,” he says. “ Jegenna neh “; you’re no foreigner, you’re a hero.

We jog slowly to Kidane Mehret church and down the asphalt mound in silence before Hailye turns, crosses himself and leads our first run up the hill. The only light comes from the occasional bare bulb hanging outside a kiosk. By the seventh or eighth rep, I have learned that the hilltop comes faster if you watch your feet , not the summit. After an hour, Hailye stops. “ Buka ,” he says. Enough. As we jog home, he tells me:” Now you should have a cold shower outside and then you should sleep. That’s going to be the most wonderful sleep .”

He was not incorrect. This develop session was the start of the time- six months or so after starting fieldwork with Ethiopian long-distance runners in Addis Ababa- when Fasil started telling me I was habesha , a word denoting unified, proud Ethiopia. He joked that, when I came back to the UK, I would be able to run races and say: ‘ Ciao farenj ,’ at the beginning-” Bye-bye foreigners”- and win easily. “ Ciao farenj ” became something of a catchphrase every time we did a good training session. So, what is specifically Ethiopian about operating up and down a hill at three o’clock in the morning?

Ethiopian( and Kenyan) running success is ordinarily explained deterministically as originating in genetics and altitude( by athletics scientists) or as a result of abject poverty. In fact, as was often explained to me, it was unable to for the poorest people to try to become athletes, since they are unable to devote the necessary time to rest or feed good enough food. Our barber in Addis- who had tried to make it as a athlete for a few years- said:” The problem of Ethiopians is lack of money ,” before adding:’ If there was money, everybody would operate .”

‘ It was not unusual for us to sit in a bus for two hours to get at training and take four hours to struggle home again .’

The athletes I lived and developed with did not believe in talent. They believed in “adaptation”, that anyone could learn to” follow the feet” of other runners, given enough time and the right disposition. They expended hours scheming training sessions, seeking the right combination of surrounding and company for the maximum benefit. They were constantly weighing the value of various places: the “heaviness” of the air at Mount Entoto against the expanses of grassland in Sendafa where the” kilometres come easily “. The cold of the forest against the hot of Akaki, some 800 metres lower. It was not unusual for us to sit in a bus for two hours to get at training and take four hours to struggle home again. If the environment was a factor in their success, it was not a passive “natural” advantage- athletes’ engagement with their environment was active and creative.

Conversations on the relative merits of locations could go on for hours. On one occasion, I woke up on Saturday morning to find Teklemariam- who lived 20 km away in Legetafo- vigorously rinsing his face at the outdoor tap in our compound.” What are you doing here ?” I asked him, bleary-eyed at 5.45 am.” I came for the hill ,” he said, before adding reverentially:” It is Tirunesh’s hill ,” explaining that it was where the Olympic 5,000 -metre and 10,000 -metre gold medallist Tirunesh Dibaba used to train.

Places are often imbued with important because of the people who develop, or trained, there. Entoto, for example, is associated with Haile Gebrselassie, whom I was told repeatedly used to run there every morning at 5.30 am. Others are significant for particular air qualities. One area of the forest was referred to as Boston, a marathon renowned for being cold, because it felt colder than other parts of the forest and because athletes often trained there when they prepared for Boston marathon. The area of woodland we often ran in on “easy” days was known as Arat Shi , which translates as “4,000”. I was told that this was the altitude, although it was closer to 2,500 metres.

‘ Ethiopians will work ‘

Part of the reason why Hailye decided that he needed to run up and down the hill in the night was because he felt that his educate had become too “comfortable”. He wanted to remind himself of the time before he had access to the team bus, when he was living on 200 birr( PS6) a month. Back then, he had to wake up in the night- when there were fewer automobiles and people on the street- and train in the city. Getting up at 3am was tied to a memory of poverty and wanting to do justice to his past self.

Another time, when he was suffering from typhoid, he still insisted on running in the woodland. He put on two tracksuits in spite of the temperature being in the mid-2 0s, to” promote sweat “. We walked slowly up the hill.” Are you sure this is a good idea ?” I asked him.” It is always better to run than to sleep ,” he said. ‘[ Cristiano] Ronaldo will not play if he has a cold.[ Gareth] Bale will not play. They will rest. Farenj will all remainder, but habesha will work .”

Several times he came to a stop, squatting and holding his forehead and complain of dizziness. In spite of recurred pleas to go home, he maintained running, saying:” I have to conflict, I have to face it .” Running through an illness- usually with a cleave of garlic up each nostril- was often portrayed as constructing you stronger, an attitude very much at odds with the medical viewpoint. Demonstrating a willingness to suffer and to continue without complaint was part of house “condition”.

A dominant discourse in sports science for upper-class endurance athletes- stimulated famous by the Team Sky cycling team- is” marginal gains “. Examples include the team taking their own mattresses to races to ensure a good night’s sleep, or a nutritionist delivering snacks to athletes’ homes. Ethiopian runners, too, place huge emphasis on rest. I was often told not to” do laps”, which is how people referred to walking around between training sessions, and is working to ensure that I slept after morning training.

My friend Fasil would often lead us on operates in the woodland that left us scrabbling up virtually cliff-like slopes, holding on to tree roots with our hands, or through thorny thickets that left us with bleeding legs and limbs. He would also purposely seek out the places inhabited most densely by hyenas, chuckling and picking up a stone when we encountered one. He explained his choice of road by associating it to the tribulations of a operating career more broadly:” Well, you know, it’s the forest. It has ups and downs, you can’t always find a comfortable place. You may face hills unexpectedly. Developing is like that. Running is like that, you cannot operated and attain everything at the first try; there will be ups and downs before you are successful .”

For Fasil, to intentionally espouse danger like this was to acknowledge the long-odds, winner-takes-all nature of the sport itself. Yet, in other ways, the athletes I knew seemed to accept that their results, and their progress, were only partially in their control. As Orthodox Christians, they believed that while they could cultivate a sense of virtuous suffering like that described above, this would only influence God’s plan for them to a certain extent. Asked about a poor race performance, one runner I knew- whom I expected to be upset- merely shrugged and told me that” it was obviously not God’s plan”, before adding:” Maybe if I had won that fund I’d have bought a vehicle and died in a vehicle crash. God knows what is good for you .”

‘ Training alone is just for health ‘

‘ To be changed, you will be required to learn from others .’

The piece of advice that I heard most often from Ethiopian runners was that it was impossible to improve on your own.” Training alone is just for health ,” I was told.” To be changed, you will be required to learn from others .” Most runners started out in rural training camps before joining clubs and management groups in the city. Running for a operate alone was almost as socially unacceptable as feeing alone. Athlete usually trained in a line of athletes and often” followed each other’s feet” by running in synchrony, apparently joined by an invisible thread. Strava devotees is likely to be frightened to hear that even GPS watches are often used communally, borrowed and swapped between members of the training group. The best training sessions were those in which energy was shared equally and everyone was seen as having done their share of the work.

Ethiopian running success

All of “its important” because it emphasises the hard work, planning and ingenuity of Ethiopian athletes. In order to join a club, athletes have to get through a trial race. One runner described having to line up for a 3,000 -metre track race with 80 people. He was told that the club would take the first three and that he should come back next year if he was fourth. He had to go through the same process to get from his local club to a regional one and was only able to move to Addis when he had finished on the rostrum in the Amhara championships several years later.

The institutional structure of Ethiopian athletics, then, is very advanced. If the UK were to support hundreds of distance runners to train full-time in such a competitive group surrounding, I expect we would also be a force-out to be reckoned with in the distance events- and UK Sport would not want that success to be dismissed as a result of poverty or British weather. To explain Ethiopian operating success to its implementation of altitude and poverty is to define it in terms of things that Ethiopia and Ethiopian athletes can’t control, which is very unfair indeed.

Michael Crawley is writing a book about Ethiopian operating

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