The Ethiopian town that’s home to the world’s greatest runners

What do Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, Derartu Tulu and Fatuma Roba have in common, apart from being Olympic gold medal-winning runners? They all come from Bekoji in Ethiopia – and they were all trained by one man.

Outside the blue hut is a plaque with a beautifully calligraphed set of rules and regulations – athletes must train hard, respect each other, work as a team and honour their homeland. At the top of the plaque three flags have pride of place: Ethiopia, the local region of Oromia and the Olympics. This is the office of Sentayehu Eshetu, known to everybody as Coach. To be honest, it’s more run-down garden shed than office. Inside, it is dark and dusty, but the late afternoon sun lights up a series of photographs of athletes on the wall. All have won at least one gold medal at middle- or long-distance running. Amazingly, six of the champions originate from this tiny town of Bekoji, and have been coached by Coach.

If Sentayehu Eshetu is not the world’s greatest coach, he is surely the greatest discoverer of running talent. In London this summer, two of the 54-year-old’s most successful former prodigies, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, will defend Olympic golds at 5,000m and 10,000m. Then there’s his first champion, Derartu Tulu, who won the Olympic 10,000m in Barcelona in 1992 and eight years later in Sydney, and Fatuma Roba, who won the Olympic marathon in 1996 in Atlanta; and the latest generation of champions – Tirunesh’s sister Genzebe, only 21 and already world indoor champion at 1500m, and Kenenisa’s younger brother Tariku who won the 3000m gold at the World Indoor Championships.

Coach is a small man with a big smile. He talks quietly and is not one for hyperbole. When I suggest he has a magical touch, he looks alarmed. “No! No magic,” he says intensely. “I don’t do any magic. It’s the weather and the fact that everything is helping them.” He must have something special? “They listen well and work hard. And eat well. You know barley? They eat barley.” He grins and says I should eat more barley.

Bekoji is 170 miles south of the capital, Addis Ababa. There are plenty of donkeys and horses and goats and cows on the road, but few cars. Coach says around 17,000 people live in the town of Bekoji; there are 25 car owners and he knows all of them. The landscape looks arid but is incredibly fertile. Everything grows here – oil seeds, coffee, tea, spices, sugar cane, cotton, cereals. The centre of Bekoji sits 10,500 feet above sea level and has an average temperature of 66 degrees. Its inhabitants are proud of its climate and special air. On arriving, I find it hard to breathe, but when I do manage to gulp some in, I quickly realise how crisp and pure it is. If you can run here, they say, you can run anywhere.

We head off across the red ochre soil, which blows up yet another mini dust storm, past the corrugated shacks and rubble and randomly parked lorries, and head for Bekoji stadium. It’s not as grand as it sounds. There is one primitive stand, a grassy bank for people to sit on and a straggly football pitch in the middle. This is where Coach takes his youngsters, between the ages of 12 and 20, through their paces five times a week.

There must be more to your success than feeding the runners barley, I say to Coach. “I give full attention to my team and I’m always on time, and I will do anything it takes to make them a champion. I tell them what they should do, and if they follow that, they run very well.” Coach never ran himself. His sport was football. He taught PE and played in central defence. These days he hobbles more than runs. He shows me the knackered knee that did for his football ambitions.

Until now, the rest of the world has remained oblivious to Coach’s achievements, but for the past four years a documentary film crew has recorded in Bekoji and has produced a lovely film called Town Of Runners. It’s no exaggeration – any day at sunrise you will see groups of teenagers or adults running up the hill. Most will be on their way to the two-hour daily training session with Coach. Within an hour the sky goes from red to white to perfect blue. By 8am, the sun is burning through in the 80s.

Coach is thinking about why so many great runners come from here – determination, physical strength from working the land, huge lungs, role models, perfect body shape. (Many of the most successful distance runners have been small, light and immensely strong, with a superhuman capacity to endure – the biopic of Ethiopia‘s most famous runner, Haile Gebrselassie, who comes from down the road in Asella, is called Endurance.) Running is a means of escape and transcendence in Ethiopia – Coach’s best runners will go to “finishing school” in Addis Ababa and that is just the start of their journey. Every day, Coach says, parents will ask him to train their children. “Kids want to run to make their parents happy, and the parents want them to run so they don’t have to work the land. They say, come and take my son or daughter.”

It must be heartbreaking telling them that they are not going to make it, I say. He shakes his head. If they have any natural ability, he insists, you can never write them off. Athletes come through unexpectedly – and fail unexpectedly. He tells me about Zegeue Shifarawu Abebe, the young man who takes training with him. “He used to train with Kenenisa, and we thought he was the better runner; that he was the one who was going to win Olympic medals.” For whatever reason, Zegeue never made it, and now he’s out every morning coaching tomorrow’s champions.

The Ethiopian running dynasty:  What is the secret to its success? 

About a month ago, we did a post questioning whether we were about to witness the end of the Ethiopian era of long distance running dominance.  The jury is still out on that one, though a world record for Meseret Defar in Oslo in the 5000 m seems to suggest that even in Kenenisa Bekele is not going to continue his dominance, the women athletes will probably reign for a good few years yet.
The next question is why are the Ethiopian athletes so successful?  Usually, when one asks about African runners dominating in middle and long distance running, we think of the Kenyans, because there seem to be infinite numbers of them and they win just about every major marathon in the world.  On the track though, it’s a different story.  Since 1993, Ethiopians have won all but one of the World and Olympic 10 000 m titles.  The athletes in question are Haile Gebrselassie and the afore-mentioned Bekele, who now share 5 out of the last 6 world titles and all three of the Olympic titles (Trivial pursuit fact – the only man other than these two to have won a title in the last 12 years is Charles Kamathi of Kenya, who won in Edmonton in 2001).
In addition to this dominance on the track, they have also dominated the Cross Country scene, with Bekele winning 5 out of 5 long races and 5 out 5 short races at the World Cross Country championships between 2002 and 2006.
Yet they clearly don’t have the depth that the Kenyans do.  I was speaking with a colleague at the Sports Science Institute here in Cape Town.  He is Kenyan and is in South Africa to try to set up a relationship with the University of Kenyatta so that we can do some research on the Kenyan runners.  He tells me that a typical track meeting in Kenya will have not one, but ten 10000 m races!  Each one has 30 participants, and every single one runs under 30 minutes!  Think about that – 300 runners all running under 30 minutes at EACH meeting!  Astonishing depth.  And he says to me that the Ethiopians have nothing like this level of depth, but that they use their talent more effectively.
So this post is not about the reasons for East African running success – that is a post for the future, when we will look at just what it is that makes these guys so good – is it training, is it genes, is it diet, is it lifestyle (it’s probably all of them, but we’ll cover that in the future).  And one really important thing to realise is that the Kenyans who are most successful are a mere stone’s throw away from the Ethiopians who are successful.  If you looked at a map of where the best runners come from in both countries, you could draw a circle around the border between them and you’d pretty much have the catchment area.  So if the reasons for the dominance of both Kenya and Ethiopia are physical and physiological, then one would be able to treat them almost the same, because they are very similar in that regard.  But for now, we concentrate on the Ethiopians and ask how it is that they have managed to dominant where it counts even though they have a smaller talent pool than the Kenyans.  And I believe that there are two key reasons why they do:

  1. Administration and policy, which has created a more narrow focus and restraint than in Kenya
  2. Training differences

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: