On our arrival in Addis and before leaving for Bekoji for the first time to research our film about Ethiopian running, we visit Richard Nerurkar.
Richard is the former British Olympic marathon runner who organises The Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s most famous mass participation running event. He moved to Ethiopia in 2001 and has turned the run from an idea proposed by Haile Gebreselassie to an event involving over 30,000 runners from all over the world.
Richard talks us about what it takes to become an elite long distance runner: ‘Altitude alone is not enough – otherwise you’d have great long distance runners from Chile or Peru. The last 200 metres of a 10km race aren’t about altitude training, they’re about what’s within you. You need role models, and you need a hunger to win. In Bekoji there’s the altitude, but there’s also the best possible role models. Kids who go to Bekoji primary schools know that this is where Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele started, and they know where it’s taken them.
He plots out for us the route a young runner needs to take in Ethiopia to reach the top. Unlike in Kenya, they must come to the capital, Addis Ababa, because Ethiopia is more centralised and it’s the location of most of the country’s big athletics clubs. They might first come to Addis to represent their region – and maybe they’ll come 35th at the national level. But that might get them into one of Addis’ 40 running clubs (which involve maybe 2000 young athletes). There, they’ll get a good training and they may get a stipend of 2-400 birr a month ($20-$40) which will feed them and give them accommodation.
They’ll compete for the clubs in competitions organised by Ethiopia’s Athletics Federation. If they do well in a couple of them, a manager might be interested in getting them a race in Europe. Do well in those and get good times, and they could make it to the Ethiopian national team.
But the competition, even at the local level, is intense. For many it is seen as the way out in places where there’s not much else to do. Ethiopia is probably the hardest place in the world to try and become a professional long distance runner, because there are so many talented young athletes.
Close to our hotel in Addis Ababa is a large building site and a sign saying ‘New Hotel – owner: Kenenisa Bekele’. It’s an indication of how far running can take a boy from Bekoji.