By Mark Jenkin
Beneath the mountains of Addis Ababa, the elements needed to produce elite athletes are clear to see.
Patience, determination, precision … and discarded car tires.
As an example of the resourcefulness of Ethiopian runners, the handiwork of Fikadu Shume is impressive.
For six days a week, he is not only dedicated to his own training schedule but plays a vital role in helping others.
Fikadu looks after more than 300 regular customers, performing the vital role of repairing running shoes.
It is regretful that many Ethiopians must make their first tentative steps towards elite status while wearing dilapidated trainers.
On fields, roads and tracks across the country the evidence is clear: Runners are giving their best with gaping holes in their shoes and socks poking through.
Fikadu’s business is attempting to remedy the situation. By skilfully using a large needle and the “jimat” nylon wire found in car tires, he sews up the holes and patches the wear-and-tear.
“Most athletes don’t have good shoes,” Fikadu says. “Shoes are expensive.”
In the renowned running town of Bekoji in Oromia, Fikalu Yeshifica speaks for many when he highlights the problem.
Standing in tattered fluorescent footwear, his big toes are poking out of the front. Yet a lack of suitable kit has not stopped the 21-year-old completing a half marathon in 63 minutes.
“My shoes do not help me to train properly,” he said.”
“I enjoy working hard. I enjoy training every day.
“I want to be a winner. I want to wave my country’s flag and to help my family.
“It is so expensive to buy shoes. If someone can help, I need help.”
It is testament to their attitude, that many athletes reach high standards despite such problems.
Fikadu, who moved to Addis from Oromia five years ago, has shown his dedication in and out of competition.
Charging up to 60 birr per pair, his shoe business provides a livelihood, supporting the main goal of becoming a successful athlete.
“I had no job so my friend taught me to repair shoes,” he said. “It was a way to earn money to pay for shelter, food, facilities and transportation for running.
I’ve been doing this for three years. Most of the time I am repairing training shoes but I can also repair smart leisure shoes.”
Every day, after his morning training session and before running again in the afternoon, he goes to work, attempting to make something new from something old.
A location near his rented home in Megenagna is the perfect place for the job as hundreds of runners pass by, making their way to the mountains high above the city.
At the age of 21, Fikadu has best times of 29 minutes for 10km and 66 minutes for half marathon.
“I am improving my times,” he said. “I run 12 times a week. My aim is to be the best runner in the world like Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele.
“It is difficult to fit in work and training. Sometimes the work is boring but I can earn money. I also help other athletes.”
Legendary Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila famously ran barefooted when he won the Olympic Marathon in Rome in 1960.
Even today, a lack of finance means athletes sometimes train over gravel and stones without shoes. However, rough terrain makes this is impractical and carries a high risk of injury. For new trainers from leading brands such as Nike, Adidas and Brooks, it can cost up to 2,500 birr.
While their quality is excellent, they are far too expensive for the majority of people to afford.
Elite athletes sometimes donate secondhand trainers to emerging runners. There are also a few shops in Addis selling secondhand kit but good running shoes remain in short supply.
It is thanks to the craftsmanship of people like Fikdu that runners can go the extra mile and give themselves a chance of reaching the top.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.