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

Part One: Kimir Dingai

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.

The land slopes away on all four sides of the grass track we stand beside. From here Asres Guadie and Kidanemariam Dessie will travel five and a half thousand horizontal kilometers to Bydgoszcz, Poland and descend a mere three vertical ones, but it may be these that count. Quite a journey, for quite an occasion. They will compete at the IAAF World Junior Championships. ‘This track,’ coach Desaleyn tells me, ‘is 3,100m above sea-level.’ At first his runners marked it out with stones. Now there is a clear inside lane, etched into the grass with thousands and thousands of lung-sapping steps. ‘Sports scientists say this is too high, they say it is inadvisable,’ he muses, looking down on the clouds in the fields below us. ‘What do you think?’ I venture. ‘It is adviseable,’ he says simply.

This article is about four young athletes making their first steps in a journey that could take them to the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, and about what it will take, and who it will take, to get them there.

The Moyo Sports athletes train with other athletes from the Gondar training camp at this location. 

As we walk from the track back towards the Amhara Region Water and Construction Company training camp, we bump into a farmer sowing seeds. I ask him if he minds having the athletes here, running all over his fields. ‘I love to watch them run,’ he replies, ‘I try to help them in any way I can’. Kidanemariam, coach Desaleyn’s star 3,000m steeplechaser, is laughing behind us. ‘Potatoes,’ he whispers, ‘that’s how he helps.’ It was not always thus, according to coach Desaleyn. At remote camps like this, not everyone in the surrounding area has heard of the exploits of Abebe Bikila or Haile Gebrselassie. ‘For a while,’ 1500m runner Asres Guadie tells me, ‘they thought we were mad. They would shout, “are you crazy? Even a mule can’t run like that, your heart will stop!”’

The next morning I can see why the locals might think that. ‘This place is perfect,’ Desaleyn tells me as we run uphill into the forest. ‘The air is clean and pure and free of pollution.’ And oxygen, I think, as I will my lungs to work harder. We make our way up the slope in a gradual zig-zag as he tells me his plan for his two young stars. ‘I think they can go to the Olympics in four years,’ he tells me. ‘But athletics is like the terrain here, it has many ups and downs.’ We run in silence for a few minutes, two-abreast in a long train of athletes, heads down against the effort. Finally we emerge from the mist and the trees thin. ‘If this hill is their route to the Olympics,’ Desaleyn says, ‘then they are about here.’

‘So they’re almost there,’ I say, ‘they can see the summit now.’

‘You will see,’ he says, ‘you will still sweat more before you reach the top.’

He is right. It might have looked close, but those last few hundred metres felt like an awfully long way.

Kimir Dingai, the settlement where the track is located, literally means ‘pile of stones.’ Apart from the camp, an army-barracks style arrangement, it is quite an apt description. There is not much here. And this, really, is the point of a training camp. ‘This is virgin land,’ coach Desaleyn tells me. The air is special. It is a place where it is possible to ‘bring change’ for the young runners.

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