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

Part Four: Bydgoszcz and Beyond

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.

I meet Asres, Kidane and Agrie in a café next to Stadium, where they have made many of their final preparations for Bydgoszcz with the National team.

Dessie Kidanemariam stands outside the stadium in Addis Ababa.

They tell me that they excited and nervous in equal measure. I ask Asres what he knows about Poland and he laughs nervously and shakes his head; ‘nothing yet,’ he tells me. I show Kidanemariam a photo of the blue Mondo track in Bydgoszcz and he asks whether it is an actual photo or an artists’ impression. He has never seen a blue track before, he says. Agrie says she is worried about running her first race without coach Habtemariam. ‘When I hear him shout to me,’ she says, ‘it doesn’t matter how tired I am, I can always change gear.’ By the time they reach Bydgoszcz their journey will have taken them to Bahir Dar for the Amhara region competition, to Asella for the national trials and to Addis Ababa for a training camp. Each stage in this journey requires adaptation. It is a long way from the peace and tranquillity of a high-altitude training camp to the bustle of an athlete hotel in Europe, and how the athletes manage this transition will be key to their performance in Poland.

The blue Mondo track in Bydgoszcz mentioned above. Photo Credit: Lisa Gregoire

For the most part, though, there is excitement. I ask Kidanemariam how he feels about representing Ethiopia. ‘I started running when I was a child,’ he tells me, ‘because I saw the people celebrating Haile and Kenenisa’s victories. I started out because I learned about patriotism.’ I ask him what he thinks the most important attribute for a runner is, and he answers with the Amharic title of the film about Gebrselassie’s life: ‘sinat.’ Endurance. Never giving up. ‘One day I will fly the country’s flag high,’ he says.

All three athletes make it through to their finals in Poland, with varying degrees of drama. It is a steep learning curve for Asres in the 1500m especially; he only has three minutes and forty-six seconds to adapt to the bustle of a championship 1500m race, and scrapes through to the final in sixth. For Kidanemariam and Agrie it is a bit more straightforward. Both finish second and advance to the final automatically.

Kidanemariam and Asres both finish in 8th place in their finals, gaining more valuable experience in the process. Asres wastes energy moving from the very back to the front of the pack between laps one and two, before getting boxed in and fading in the final 200m. Kidanemariam hesitates at a few of the early barriers, running tightly bunched in the pack; several split second decisions that add up to an unassailable gap. Both are disappointed but finally come round to the idea that 8th in the world isn’t all that bad.

With two laps to go in her 3,000m steeplechase final, Agrie is in 6th place and it looks all but certain that she will finish outside of the medals. Two barriers later she is in 5th; another two and she is 4th. She runs off the final water jump powerfully and sprints home to the medal she dreamt of. The bronze medal is hers. Clearly she can change gears without Habtemariam’s shouts.

Agrie competes in the steeplechase race. Photo Credit: Getty Images for IAAF

And now all three athletes have a decision to make. They have seen what it’s like to train in Addis Ababa now, outside of the cocoon of camp life. They know that there is money to be made on the roads. But they also know that they have unfinished business on the track, and that the distraction-free environment of the camp, with the forests and hills right on their doorstep, is the best place to prepare. Malcolm Anderson, their representative and founder of Moyo Sports, understands that a balance needs to be struck.

‘Asres, Kidanemariam and Agrie have been thrown in at the deep end in a global championship which aired live around the world,’ Malcolm says. ‘This was a major stepping stone for them and they coped well. The pressure, however, to adjust to the roads will be intense. If they remain with Moyo Sports we’ll be advising them that the track is their future for now.’

Agrie (right) receiving her medal. Photo Credit: Getty Images for IAAF

Given that it was the Olympic Games that originally inspired the trio to start running, a strong performance from the likes of Tirunesh Dibaba in Rio might just be enough to keep them on track for the next four years.

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