By Jacob Wiebel
Six mornings a week, Firezar Dugumma wakes up before sunrise, puts on his trainers and begins his first training session of the day. Soon he is one of hundreds of runners weaving their way through the Eucalyptus forests that line the steep mountain slopes to the north of Addis Ababa. Some run alone, some in small groups, lined up in single file to negotiate the narrow trails. By international standards, many of these runners are elite athletes; Firezar’s Half Marathon time of 64 minutes, run at altitude, would put him in the top 5 in the UK. Yet in Ethiopia, recognition and success are scarce commodities. The talent pool is deep, and emerging from it remains the preserve of a chosen few. As Ethiopia’s top athletes are in London to compete in the Olympic Games, let me turn to Addis to explore some of the background, challenges and impacts of the country’s running elite.
Firezar and I first met during a research trip in March 2010. Since then we have spent months training together on the trails of Kotebe, ‘Arat Shi’ and Entoto, giving me ample opportunities to be left in the dust behind him and to learn about Firezar’s journey thus far. Originally from a village in the Bale mountains, Firezar moved to Addis Ababa when he was still a teenager, an inevitable step on the road to athletic success in Ethiopia. In the capital he was supported by his older brother, an aspiring local businessman, joined one of the established running clubs and integrated in the community of athletes who live on the edge of the forest, between Meganagna and Kotebe. He enrolled at the College of Teachers’ Education, but the course demanded too much time and energy and had to be sacrificed in the interest of full-time training, at least temporarily. His decisions, whether it be the move to Addis, the postponement of college or the delay of marriage (“I will think about that once I have won”) are fueled by dreams of international running success and of the opportunities and rewards that attend it. His hopes of an international breakthrough, of recognition and of material rewards are shared by his family in Bale, one of the many threads in the urban-rural nexus linking the capital to the countryside.In the years since coming to Addis Firezar has improved and matured as a runner. There is a quiet confidence about him now, and he is ready to compete on the roads of the world. Soon, he thinks, he can win big road races. “It is possible, you know” he says with his infectious smile. “Running well in Europe is easy for us, because of the climate in which we train. It is getting to the starting line that is difficult.”
And difficult it is indeed. Firezar received his passport two years ago, and has been eagerly waiting for an opportunity to use it since. During this time he has enjoyed some success on the national stage, finishing in the top ten in Ethiopia’s two major road races. But the move to the international racing circuit is still eluding him. That move requires an invitation from a race director to clear the visa hurdle, and without an agent this remains difficult to obtain for internationally unknown runners. The alternative to a direct invitation or to finding an agent is selection by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, but Firezar has little hope in this option: “Unless you know someone, it is very difficult” he remarks, expressing the feelings of many athletes. The Federation has been the object of frequent accusations of corruption and favoritism in the past years, leading it to select its Olympic team for London strictly on the basis of fastest times run this year, even if this meant naming undefeated title defender Tirunesh Dibaba only as a reserve in the 5000m.
In the absence of supportive domestic structures, the lure of running for those foreign countries that actively try to “recruit” East African athletes – Bahrain, Qatar and Turkey in particular – becomes all the stronger, in spite of the pressures exerted by the close links between distance running and Ethiopian nationalism. “I want to run for my country”, Firezar says, “but if we are not given a chance we have to consider our options.” The social cost paid by those who do decide to switch nationalities varies significantly: some athletes, like multiple 1500m world champion Maryam Jamal who now runs for Bahrain, still regularly reside and train in Addis. Others, like 2008 Olympic 10000m silver medallist Elvan Abeylegesse who now competes for Turkey, feel that they are no longer welcome to train in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has much to gain from its athletes retaining their Ethiopian citizenship and residence. Elite athletes have been broadcasting a positive image of the country abroad and bringing foreign currency home. Distance runners stand behind a number of significant investments in the country, from hotels over cinemas to a car assembly plant. The economic and development potential of distance running has been recognised both by the government, which has opened numerous youth development centers across the country, and by NGOs like Running Across Borders. Firezar is well aware of the substantial rewards, especially by Ethiopian standards, that can be earned in international road running, and feels that it is only the difficulty of traversing borders with an Ethiopian passport that is keeping him from sharing in them. Yet with his characteristic optimism he keeps training and waiting for his opportunity, inspired by dreams of the future. “It is possible” he smiles. “Once I will run in Europe you can stay at my new house when you visit Addis.”
In London, Olympic champions and relative newcomers to the international racing scene will toe the starting lines together for Ethiopia. But they all share a similar journey. It is one fueled by long years of training and dreaming, one shared by many who have never made it onto the biggest stages of international competition. But it is also one which does not end at the finish line, but carries on shaping and transforming the face of the country.