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

Part Two: Old Airport

I travelled to Gondar with three of coach Desaleyn’s alumni, Abere, Selamyhun and Berhanu. Like Asres and Kidanemariam, they are represented by Moyo Sports Management, but as road runners they have relocated to Addis Ababa, where their management has a professional training group. They are here because if they spend time here it makes it easier when they get back to Addis, which, whilst high, is 600m lower in altitude. ‘We come here on the bus,’ Selamyhun tells me, grinning, ‘we spend two weeks collecting fitness, and then we put it in our bags and take it back to Addis!’

Moyo Sports athletes photographed training in Sendafa, just outside Addis Ababa. Berhanu Adissie now runs marathons, but used to train at the same camp as Kidanemariam and Asres. Asissie took 2nd place in his marathon in Rome(2.09.27). 

Abere and Berhanu are recovering from second-place finishes in Zurich and Rome marathons respectively. They are happy, therefore, to ‘jog’ for an hour with me rather than join in with the ‘intense’ session coach Desaleyn has planned. We return from our run and sit on rocks at the edge of another grass track, fainter than the last, on a plateau that was an airstrip during the Derg period. A group of four are doing 1km repetitions with three minutes recovery, and they are running fast. On his penultimate run, Asres clocks 2.37, and another athlete jokingly presses a 1 birr coin to his head. ‘What’s that for?’ I ask. ‘It’s his prize money,’ I learn, as they all laugh. Asres claims he is going to run the last rep in under 2.35, and asks what his prize will be if he does. Abere tells him it is impossible; he’ll give him 100 birr if he can do it. The joking and laughing continues until they get close to starting the last rep, and then Asres gets serious. He takes off and runs the first 200m in 28 seconds, a steely glint in his eye as cheers ring out across the plateau. 100 birr is no laughing matter.

Dessie Kidanemariam is photographed at the track.

He reaches 400m in 59 seconds and 800m in 2.00 before fighting his way up the final home straight, utterly spent, to record 2.34. Abere is stunned. ‘The boy can run,’ he said, shaking his head, as Aserus lay flat on his back offering weak high-fives to his team mates.

This is a rare instance of money influencing the way that people run at the camp, but an illustrative one. According to coach Desaleyn, track athletes face a stark choice between remaining in the camp and moving to the city. With ever-increasing frequency, athletes move to the road and to the marathon, the lure of money simply too tempting. Abere has just built a large house overlooking one of the fields they train on with the money he won for his 8th place finish in Dubai marathon; it is a constant reminder of the potential riches on offer for abandoning the track and hitting the roads.

Visiting these remote camps, situated in rolling farmland, and sustained entirely with food grown in the surrounding fields and a desire to make Ethiopia proud, is a refreshing break from the murkier headlines about athletics. It feels like traveling to a more innocent time in athletics history.

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