Out of Thin Air : An Ethiopian Runners' Journey to the Olympics

Part Three: Creating Belief

Writer and Anthropologist Michael Crawley travelled to Ethiopia’s high-altitude training camps to see what it takes for young athletes to make from the top of the world to, well, the top of the world.

About 300km away, on another plateau, is Debre Marcos, home to the Amhara Prisons club. The coach there, Habtemariam Ayehu, also has two young athletes in with a chance of making the Olympic team in four years time. I ask him about the importance of the training camp environment.

Like Desaleyn, he values the ‘special air’ and challenging landscape, but he also emphasises the psychological benefits of communal life in the camp. For his star athletes, Agrie Belachew and Jemal Mekonnen, he thinks it is belief that makes the biggest difference. ‘We spend a lot of time working on their confidence,’ he tells me. Before any competition, they hold what he calls ‘the ceremony’ in the camp. Everyone, from the athletes and coaches to the office and catering staff, comes together for a traditional coffee ceremony. The athletes are then divided into groups by discipline and each perform a short piece of theatre. After this, the athletes speak to the group about any doubts or fears they have about their upcoming competitions. This gives the coaches and the other athletes an opportunity to reassure them, to remind them of past training sessions that prove that they’re ready to compete at the highest level. It also gives them a chance to allay fears about traveling abroad for the first time, which can be understandably daunting.

Agrie Belachew won bronze in the 2016 World Junior Championships 3000m steeplechase. Photographed above in a cafe by the Stadium in Addis Ababa 

In his first ever outing in an Ethiopian vest, Jemal finished 4th at the African Championships in Durban, clocking 28.08 for 10,000m. If he had doubts in the lead up to the race, he tells me, he would replay the conversation from ‘the ceremony’ in his head, reminding himself the he was ready, that all those countless hours of training were about to pay off.

Jemal thinks he could have won the race in Durban if he’d started his finishing surge earlier and hit the front with eight laps to go instead of four. Sometimes the results of four years of training can be determined by an indecisive four minutes. For Jemal’s girlfriend Agrie, and for Kidanemariam, belief is even more important. They both run the steeplechase, which has traditionally been the domain of Ethiopia’s East African neighbours in Kenya. In fact, there can be no other sporting event that has been so utterly dominated by one nation. Kenya have a fifteen for fifteen record in the World Junior championships, and since Kenyan athletes started competing at Olympic Games the only times a Kenyan has not stood atop the podium have been the times Kenyan athletes have failed to toe the line due to political boycotts. For the last fifty years, betting on a Kenyan to win a steeplechase has been a bit like betting that Donald Trump will say something offensive.

Dessie Kidanemariam (front), and Asres (middle) at the training camp in Guna.

Kidanemariam did most of his training for the World Junior Championships hurdling a truck tyre planted in the grass track rather than a steeplechase barrier, but coach Desaleyn is convinced that a lack of facilities is unimportant. ‘In Amharic our word for steeplechase is the same as our word for challenge. Making training more difficult is not a bad thing.’ He tells me that the answer lies in helping athletes to ‘send a message to their subconscious mind,’ that they can compete with the Kenyans.

The tyre mentioned above

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