By Dawit Tolesa
Azmeraw Bekele, 29, is a long distance runner with illustrious records in road and cross country running competitions. His cameo year of 2010 was a successful season winning the 10,000 meters Great Ethiopian Run and the National Cross Country title.
In the world stage, he has made his marks in road races in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, Azmeraw is not all too pleased with the way his athletics career panned out.
“For years, I have been competing in long distance races like the marathon, half marathon and other cross country competitions in both local and international stages. But it would have been better had I started running in 10,000 and 5,000 track competitions and then move on to marathon,”Azmeraw told The Reporter in a recent encounter.
Azmeraw, who regrets his path, had the record to prove that he would have amassed huge success in the competition. He claimed his first national title on the track in 10,000 meters at the 40th Ethiopian Athletics Championships in 2011 with an outstanding sprint finish.
Ethiopia is a land of world class long distance runners. Haile Gebresilassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar are household names. For Ethiopians, anything less than a gold medal in 5,000 and 10,000 meters cause huge disappointments. The world record for both distances in the men category is held by Kenenisa for more than a decade now. Tirunesh holds the women world 5,000 meters record.
But there appears lack of world class talent who are following in the footsteps of these legendary athletes. And there is fear that the nation might lose its prestige in the long distance track competition. Managers and pursuit of money are being blamed for the dying breeds of talent in these distances.
Athletes like Azmeraw started off their career in cross country and road races where competitions are more frequently organized in international stages. In comparison, the legendary Haile made a name for himself and his country in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters track races before moving on to marathon.
“One of the reason for lack of track athletes in Ethiopia currently is because more coaches are focused in the marathon race rather than focusing over 5,000 or 10,000 meters,” Gebregziabher Gebremariam, a long distance runner who also represented his country in the 5000 and 10,000 meters competition, told The Reporter.
“The current athletes are more business oriented when compared to the previous ones,” Gebreziabher added.
But many lay the blame on managers of athletes. Gudissa Taso, athletics coach in Oromia Regional State, is one of them.
“We [coaches] are not fond of managers. Because our athletes are fleeing to other nations influenced by mangers who are only motivated by money,” Gudissa told The Reporter.
Managers sign contracts with athletes. And in some circumstances, managers, rather than being employees of athletes, act as owners – deciding for them in which races to compete.
Those in the athletics business say that there is no lack of talent or desire to compete in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
Bogale Bayisa, winner of 10,000 meters in the January 14th Youths Athletics Championship in Assela, says the problem rests elsewhere.
“Despite the claim that there are no sufficient talent in these races, the problem lies with the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and athletics clubs in recruiting and offering opportunities for young talents,” Bogale told The Reporter.
The legendary Derartu Tulu, who rose to prominence when she made an Olympic history in 1992 by winning in style the women’s 10000 meters race in Barcelona, warns Ethiopia’s reputation in these races are in danger unless addressed quickly.
“Unless the athletics federation and the clubs work jointly, Ethiopians winning spirit built over the past decades could diminish,” Derartu told The Reporter.
Ethiopian Athletics Federation says they are aware of the issue and insist that they are working to address it by focusing on youngsters.
“We are aware that short distance runners are moving directly to marathon due to managers’ influence and money related issues. We will soon conduct a meeting with mangers,” Dube Jilo, technical director of Ethiopian Athletics Federation, told The Reporter.
“For now, the federation is working on recruiting youngsters. But we are yet to come up with legendary runners like Tirunesh and Kenenisa,” Dubee added.
It remains unclear how agreements are signed between managers and athletes, what benefits the athletes and the government draw from such arrangements, how athletes participate in international competitions and whether the federation is aware of all of the competitions Ethiopians runners participate. Aspiring athletes can only hope the Ethiopian Athletics Federation address these issues soon and retain country’s prestige in 5000 and 10000 meters.
However, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) reported “talks” to eliminate such track events as the 10,000 meters from the Olympic schedule, spell gloomy future for athletes who want to compete in this track competition. IOC reportedly seeks to trim certain competitions so that other sports can be included in the Games but none of the reported changes would be made before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.