Ethiopia is famous for its world-class athletes. The legendary Abebe Bikila, who famously won marathon gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, is a pioneer for Ethiopian athletics and Olympic glory in long distance running. When Abebe went to try out shoes at the 1960 Summer Olympics, the shoe sponsor at the Olympics had few shoes left and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn't use them. A couple of hours before the race, he decided to run barefoot, and astonished the world not only by running barefoot but also winning the most difficult athletics competition with a new world record. After the race, when Abebe was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism." Then four years later in 1964, Abebe became the first man to successfully defend the marathon title. He only wore shoes for the second victory.
Though, the 1960 gold medal was the first Olympic gold medal, Ethiopia first participated at the Olympics in 1956, and has sent athletes to compete in every Summer Olympic Games since then, except for the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Games. Ethiopia has a love affair with athletics, particularly with long-distance running. Ever since the victory of Abebe, Ethiopia has been a regular in the medal lists of Olympic Games and world championships. Ethiopian athletes have won a total of 38 medals, all in athletics.
The Olympics is a major international event considered to be the world’s foremost sports competition where more than 200 nations participate. In this great sports festivity, Ethiopian long-distance athletes have been sources of national pride for the country. For long, Ethiopian athletes controlled the international long-distance track and road running competitions. Besides Abebe, other prominent Ethiopian Olympic figures who hoisted the country's flag at the Olympics include Mamo Wolde, Miruts Yifter and Haile Gebre- Selassie among men athletes and Derartu Tulu and Fatuma Roba among women.
Ethiopia is expected to shine brightly at London 2012 Olympic Games which kick off on 27 July 2012. The Ethiopian track and field Olympic team was announced earlier. Members of the team were selected on the basis of their 2012 seasonal best times. The team is now finalizing its preparation for the games.
The London Games is the first time where Ethiopia will compete for 800m titles for both men and women, signaling a move toward middle-distance running among the country’s athletes, traditionally known for producing long-distance champions. The Olympic team is filled with youngsters who, besides the traditional long-distance running, are also hopefuls for the middle-distance running competitions like 800m and 1500m. Indeed, for many of these runners, the London 2012 games will be their first time competing in the Olympics.
“We have to focus on that, because it is not good to just focus on 5,000m, 10,000m and marathons,” the head coach of Ethiopia’s Olympic team, Yilma Berta, recently told AFP. “Some of our middle distance runners are coming, they are good and they are trying to outshine the world,” he added.
Dube Jillo, technical director for the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, said with more young runners entering professional athletics, it is natural that participation in shorter distances expands. He did not rule out moving into short-distance running racing in the future. “For the upcoming Brazil Olympics, maybe we will try coming down to 400m and 200m, why not?” he said. “We are going to continue our job, we never sleep.”
Among the most promising middle-distance athletes, Fantu Magiso Manedo, 20, and Mohammed Aman, 18, are much-anticipated Olympic favourites. Mohammed set the 800m men’s record for Ethiopia last year when he came in first place in Rieti, Italy with a time of 1:43. “The new generation is coming, and they are performing better, even (Haile) is saying he wants to see the new generation perform like him… everybody wants to see that,” the head coach said.
Similarly, both the men and women marathon teams are also dominated by Young athletes, which have an average age of between 24 and 25. “We are developing our team with youngsters so we can have an advantage with our athletes,” said marathon coach Melaku Deresse.
Besides, senior athletes and Olympic champions are also included in the team. Despite suffering from injuries, the Ethiopian public and athletics fans have high hopes on Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele and they are expected to fully regain their potentials to perform well in 10,000m and 5,000m competitions. In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the two athletes helped Ethiopia to be on the medal list, each winning two gold medals. Yilma said he had high hopes for, Kenenisa expecting high results for him in the London Games. “He will fight with our athletes and all the other athletes and he will perform like he did in the last Olympics,” he said. In addition, the Athens Olympic gold medalist in 5,000m, Meseret Defar is also one of the favourites, among senior athletes, to bring medal to Ethiopia. Ibrahim Jeilan, who is also another favourite for the 10,000 men competition told AFP that “They (Ethiopian Athletes for London Olympics) are younger and new athletes, maybe for this year we have chance to win golds in both men and women events.”
As always, the government and public have shown great support for the Olympic National Team. It can be said that it is the public who sponsored its own Olympic National Team. On Thursday, during a fund raising event held at the Addis Ababa Hilton, the Ethiopian Olympic Committee announced that 46 million birr was raised for the sponsorship of the 2012 Ethiopian Olympic Team. With this huge popular support from behind, Ethiopian athletes are expected to yet again make the country and its peoples proud in the London Olympics.
Source: Ethiopian Press Agency (By ABIY HAILU)