As the soft sunrise lightly kisses Addis Ababa, the rhythm of breathing and shoes slapping the ground resonates throughout the city. Clusters of runners weave uphill, downhill.
Watching the runners train, I feel exhausted and intimidated. Steep hills and rough terrain on flat plains accompany the high altitude. For anyone not from Ethiopia, the difference in altitude — almost 8,000 feet above sea level —makes exercising and even walking difficult.
“Running, for Ethiopians, means a lot of things,” Ethiopian sports journalist Ato Fikir Yilkal says. “Ethiopia is a land of runners.
“You can see everybody running to win his life. Every runners’ story in Ethiopia is inspirational for the young, for the generation.”
Ethiopians developed the habit of running long distances when schools were located far away from where many people lived, Yilkal says. Children would run to school to get there more quickly. There is one story about a famous athlete who ran 20 kilometers (more than 12 miles) to and from school day.
“They want to escape what is behind in their life, and in their home,” Yilkal says. “If you consider the most successful Ethiopian distance runners, their life will tell you something.”
Ethiopia’s male and female long-distance runners are internationally celebrated. Among them are Abebe Bikila, who won an Olympic gold medal running barefoot in Rome in 1960. Tirunesh Dibaba has won three gold medals. Haile Gebrselassie is one of the greatest runners in history. In 2013 and 2015, Lelisa Desisa won the men’s Boston Marathon.
The most famous training place in Ethiopia — and the birthplace of many famous runners —is in Bekoji in Arsi Province, a few hours south of Addis Ababa. The facility resembles a small college campus containing a dining hall, dormitories, a place for education and a running track, and it has a family environment where athletes grow more than just physically.
Coaches travel to different areas of Ethiopia to evaluate the runners. They are rated in a variety of categories, including speed, reaction time, height, weight, stride and much more. The coaches then take the athletes with the best overall score.
The training schedule is grueling, but many of them have endured much worse conditions.
“Ethiopians are very resilient when it comes to facing problems of any kind,” says Alem Tatesse, a race walker for the youth national team.
Tatesse grew up in poverty outside Addis Ababa. She didn’t have appropriate running clothing, but she stuck with her passion.
“I am always happy running,” Tatesse says.
In Bekoji, she learned how successful she could be through hard work and dedication.
“In Addis, I wouldn’t even think of being the person I am now. I faced problems and did not have ways to resolve them,” Tatesse says with a soft smile. “This has created quite an opportunity for me to live a better life.”
Bizuge Mammo, a competitor in the 1500-meter race, said that when she initially started to train, her mother was not supportive because she wanted Bizuge to finish getting an education. But her brothers urged her to continue to train because they saw it as opportunity for her to succeed.
“I used to hide myself (from my mother),” Mammo says. “She did not know I was an athlete.”
Mammo was proud to be selected for the prestigious Bekoji center, which is led by legendary coach Sentayehu Eshetu.
“It’s very pleasant to see our country in a positive light, a positive image,” Mammo says.
Competing for her nation is a huge responsibility, Mammo says. She works hard to become a role model for those struggling throughout Ethiopia.
“I’m not a person that gives up hope,” Mammo says. “I keep hoping and hoping and I get stronger as time goes.”
Fikadu Abera, 800-meter competitor, says the training center in Bekoji “is a source of unity for this country.”
“I think about reaching a better place when I’m running,” Abera says. “That’s always on my mind.”
Ethiopians striving to use athletics to escape poverty is familiar to many in impoverished parts of Mississippi.
“In a lot of communities all across the world, athletics are seen as a mechanism to try and elevate yourself in many ways out of a social economic condition you find yourself in,” says Charles Ross, associate professor of history and director of African-American studies at the University of Mississippi. “They have recognized that this is a way in which they can empower themselves economically.”
Ross calls this “a very risky route.” The question that needs to be addressed, he says, is: What happens if you do not make it? The impact of failure – moving to new cities but not making the cut for professional teams, for example – can leave athletes in even worse conditions than before, with no income and little education.
“Every time an athlete comes in contact with people they used to be associated with they are constantly reminded of what they used to be, which can be a very difficult mental transition for many athletes,” says Ross, who has done extensive research on blacks in sports.
“There’s more beyond life than simply athletics. Sports is just one occupation, one opportunity that people have to be successful in life and there are other things you can potentially do.”
Kasu Solomon, who grew up in the Ethiopia countryside near Arsi, decided to try to be an athlete after listening to popular athletes interviewed on sports radio shows.
“It is about competing with yourself,” Solomon says.
He wants to show the world that Ethiopians do not quit when faced with challenges.
“Athletics is closely tied to being an Ethiopian and to the country as a whole.”
Now, he trains at Bekoji’s elite training facility, and he wants to help his village.
“I really want to become a coach when I’m done competing,” Solomon says. “ It’s a way to improve our livelihood.”