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
The Guardian has a new article The Ethiopian town that's home to the world's greatest runners by Simon Hattenstone that tells more about the Ethiopian village of Bekojii that I wrote about here. Bekoji seems to be the Ethiopian version of Iten in Kenya, turning out scores of the greatest distance runners this planet has ever seen. It is definitely worth the read. There is also an accompanying slideshow of 12 photographs related to the story here. Here are some interesting tidbits that I enjoyed.
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.Although many champion runners come from Bejoki, it is not easy for the young runners, as the coach Sentayehu Eshetu makes clear. Some don't have the talent. Leaving to go to training camps with miserable conditions does not suit many of the runners. Those who choose running fall behind in school. However there is something in the air:
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.)
The article highlight the new documentary on the town called Town of Runners and some of the runners seen in the film, but it also focuses some attention on some of the greats from the town such as the two time 10000 meters Olympic Gold medalist Derartu Tulu.
Did people treat them differently after Derartu won? "If the neighbours have problems, they ask, and Derartu will help. Even if they don't ask, she can see and will help. That's how she is."Many of the runners like Tulu came back to Bejoki to thank their coach, but others never offered thanks, although he is OK with that. It doesn't seem like he has been paid well for his coaching and his discovery and mobilization of such talent.
On the way back, Coach tells me Derartu has always been his favourite champion. "Everybody loves her. She is sociable." Do the successful runners keep in touch with him when they leave for Addis? "Some do. Some come back and say thank you after they have won the Olympics, some don't. Derartu and Kenenisa and Tirunesh all said thank you, the others didn't." Does it bother him? "No. The reward is seeing them win."
Haile is out working, but Alem welcomes me. She tells me how they got together. She had a shop in Addis, on Haile's running route. She didn't know who he was – just another man who ran past quickly every day. After a year he walked in and asked for her phone number. It took her a while to realise he was asking her out: "He was shy." He thought she was above his station.And then I guess we learn the real secret to the greatest distance runner of all time. He just loves to run!
Alem is dressed in an elegant trouser suit. She stands on the balcony as we talk, queen of all she surveys. Is Haile one of the wealthiest men in Ethiopia now? "Yes, he is one of them." She giggles, embarrassed. Does he still run? Try stopping him, she says. "He runs everywhere. There is construction work we are doing, and he runs there. Then he runs in the mountains."But running is a hard life, more telling is what the Gebrselassie family wants for their children.
They have four children, the oldest 13, the youngest six. Are they runners? She looks shocked. "No! They are students." Would she prefer it if they won Olympic gold or went into business? "For me, I prefer first learning. The same for Haile."I also liked learning more about about those mysterious Ethiopian form or gymnastic drills.
The emphasis is on stretching and loosening, and he refers to the routines as gymnastics. There are so many different exercises – running on the front of your toes, on the back of your heels, bending low and scattering imaginary crops, skipping with an invisible rope, duck-walking, goose-stepping, horse-cantering. "Up, up, up," Coach says, as the athletes lift their legs ever higher.Here is a video of Bekoji made a couple of years ago when some runners visited the town and the coach.
A great DVD starring Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie: Endurance