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Ethiopia's rich legacy of running

The emperor's reign is over. Long live the emperor

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ENDURANCE TESTER: Haile Gebresellasie (right) feels Ethiopia's poverty was the over-riding motivation behind his success

For Haile Gebresellasie, the London Olympics is over. 'The Emperor, ' as he is known by his admirers in Ethiopia, admitted as much when he finished the 10, 000 metres in seventh place in Hengelo, the Netherlands last Sunday. Earlier, he had failed to come under the Olympics qualifying time for the marathon, but his victory in the 10km Great Manchester Run had kept his hopes alive. The Hengelo race doubled up as an Olympic trial run for Ethiopian runners.

"The spikes. It is finished for me. " The 39-year-old twice 10, 000m Olympic champion had announced his retirement after he bent over and grimaced in pain in the 2010 New York marathon, a medical examination revealing fluid and tendonitis in his right knee. In a tribute, British track icon Sebastian Coe had described the Ethiopian as the greatest athlete of all time. But his coach Woldemeskel Kostre thought Gebresellasie could go on racing at the top level till he was 45.

Gebresellasie ran the Hengelo 10, 000m in 27 minutes and 39 seconds, way behind the winner Tariku Bekele, who clocked 27:11. 70. Bekele and second placed Leleisa Desisa Benti will represent Ethiopia in London. If Gebresellasie was disappointed, his smile didn't show it. He was handing over the baton to a new golden generation of younger and stronger Ethiopian runners.

A successful businessman in Addis Ababa, Gebresellasie dreams of eradicating poverty in his country, a dream he shares with other great Ethiopian endurance runners of the past. "This is all that matters in my country. When I am out training I think about this a lot;when I am running it is going all over in my mind. As a country we cannot move forward until we eradicate poverty, " Gebresellaisie believes.
Paradoxically, poverty, he had once said, was one of the reasons why his country was famous for its long distance runners. Genes and a diet of vegetables and injera, a traditional food made of teff, a grain grown in Ethiopia rich in minerals, were a couple of other reasons he could think of. Son of a poor farmer, Gebresellasie had to run 10km to attend school, with books carried in the crook of his left arm. It was to become his trademark style as he grew up to become a champion runner.

As a boy, he dreamt of becoming a Miruts Yifter, the ageless runner who won the 5, 000 and 10, 000 metres gold medals at the 1980 Olympics at Moscow. They called him 'Yifter the Shifter' because of his ability to shift gears during his races and still have plenty of gas left at the tape. Like most Ethiopians, Yifter, too, was in the habit of running all the way to school, till one day he caught the eye of Nigussie Roba, famously responsible for discovering several African runners and coaching them to success and fame. Roba got him to join the Ethiopian air force. Gebresellasie, at 165cm even more sparsely built than his boyhood hero, has far excelled Yifter, now in his 70s.

But Ethiopia first became famous for its long distance running talent much before Yifter came on the scene. That was when the fabled Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympics marathon in two hours, 16 minutes and two seconds, running barefooted on the cobbled streets of Rome. He was later quoted as saying that he ran barefooted because "I wanted the world to know that my country has always won with determination and heroism". As if to prove that Rome was no fluke, Abebe, who pioneered Africa's advent into endurance running, repeated his gold medal-winning feat at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in 2:12:11, this time in running shoes. To drive home his point about "determination and heroism, " he won the race barely six weeks after undergoing an operation for appendicitis.

In 1968, coach Roba sensed that Bikila was not in proper shape to complete a hat-trick of Olympic marathon victories, so he ordered Mamo Wolde, another great Ethiopian runner, to prepare for the race. It turned out that Bikila dropped out midway through, leaving Wolde to amazingly race his way to the gold medal at the age of 37. But he could have been older. Some say he could have been 40. There are any number of people in countries where birth records are not systematically maintained, who are not sure of their exact date of their birth.

Both Bikila and Wolde are dead, as also coach Roba. The tradition these great men had set continues in the African continent. When it's not an Ethiopian who is winning a marathon or a 10, 000m it must be a Kenyan or a Moroccan. The winner of the marathon at the last Olympics inBeijing in 2008, which Gebresellasie decided to miss for health reasons, was a Kenyan youth called Samuel Wanjiru, only 21.

But back to Gebresellasie. A phenomenal finisher, Gebresellasie ran one of his greatest races in the Sydney Olympics of 2000, in which he beat his great rival Paul Tergat of Kenya to win the 10, 000 metres gold medal. It was the kind of finish that one sees in 100 metre sprints, not in long distance races like the 10, 000. But then Gebresellasie had always said he never enjoyed running slow. You see, he had to run fast to be in time for school every morning. From 1, 500 metres to the Marathon, Gebresellasie has won it all, his victory in the 2008 Berlin Marathon in 2:03:59 being an incredible feat.
Maybe the great man will keep racing on the road.

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