Road to Paris: Ethiopia’s marathoners hope to relive legendary Olympic triumphs

bird story agency Kenya July 9, 2024

Stephen Granger, bird story agency

When Abebe Bikila ran barefoot over the cobbles in Rome to break the tape in the Olympic Marathon in world record time of 2hr 15 min 16 sec, he gave notice to the world of a sea-change in the sport of distance running.

The year was 1960 and Bikila’s win signalled the start of African domination in the sport which has increased to a crescendo with passing years and set a marker which many of his compatriots were to follow over the next six decades.

At 28, Bikila became the second African to win Olympic marathon gold, following South African Ken McArthur’s 1912 victory, and the first to defend his title with a 2:12:11 win in Tokyo four years later.

Olympic success boosted Shewa-born Bikila’s military career in the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, earning him promotions: to corporal after his 1960 triumph, lieutenant after his Tokyo victory, and captain despite dropping out 16km into the 1968 Olympic Marathon in Mexico City due to a stress fracture.

After Bikila’s reign ended, Ethiopia continued to excel. His teammate Mamo Wolde won in Mexico City, Gezahegne Abera triumphed in Sydney in 2000, and Fatuma Roba and Tiki Gelana claimed victories in the women’s competition in Atlanta 1996 and London 2012, respectively, flying the Ethiopian flag high.

Despite more than a decade passing since Ethiopia’s last Olympic Marathon victory, with its abundant distance-running talent and the impressive credentials of their current marathon team, podium glory is now long overdue.

Kenenisa Bekele is possibly the most successful and decorated distance runner on the planet. At 42 years he is still at the peak of his career and seeking to add Olympic success in the marathon to the many medals he won at the highest level on the track.

Switching to the women and at the opposite end of the experience spectrum, former 400m and 800m track star, Tigist Assefa, 27, has run only three marathons, all of them faster than 2 hr 17 min and one at 2:11:53 — faster than any other women in history.

The pair will undoubtedly contend for line honours in the most competitive races in Olympic marathon history but apart from threats from other nations, notably their neighbours, Kenya, they could be challenged and possibly surpassed by their impressive teammates.

The three-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion, Bekele, will line up on the start line in Paris with reigning Boston Marathon champion and fastest qualifier in the field, Sisay Lemma, and winner of the 2024 Seville Marathon, Deresa Geleta.

Bekele may not have emulated his track and cross-country success (where he bagged 19 global titles) on the road, but only world record holder, the late Kelvin Kiptum (2:00:35), and Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:09) have ever run faster than Bekele’s 2019 Berlin Marathon winning time of 2:01:41.
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An outsider for the Ethiopian team after his 4th place at Valencia in December, Bekele kicked the selection door wide open with a competitive run in London in April, where he finished second, just 14 seconds behind the winner, Kenyan Alexander Munyao. That earned his place on the team and set up a fascinating head-to-head dual with Kipchoge.

A day after the men’s race and on the last day of the 2024 Olympics, world record holder Assefa will go to the start line of the women’s marathon alongside teammates 32 year old Amane Beriso, who won the world marathon title in Budapest last year, and Megertu Alemu, 26, fourth in London this year and second in the year before.

Assefa proved her Berlin triumph was no flash in the pan, with an impressive race at London in April, when she finished second just 7 seconds behind Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, whose 2:16:16 set a world-record for women’s only marathons. The third Ethiopian in the Paris team Alemu, finished 4th in that race, just 18 seconds off the lead in the closest finish in the race’s history.

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If the strength of a nation’s marathon team can be judged by those left out as opposed to those selected, Ethiopia will indeed be hard to beat.

The 2023 New York marathon champion and gold medallist at the 2022 World Championships in Oregon, Tamirat Tola, and 2024 Boston Marathon runner-up Mohamed Esa were named as reserves on the men’s team, while Gotytom Gebreslase, winner and runner-up at the 2022 and 2023 World Championships respectively, Buze Diriba, 4th at Boston in April, and Sutume Asefe, winner at Tokyo this year, could only make the ‘bench’ in the women’s squad, named as official reserves.

Haji Adilo, named as one of the two coaches on the Ethiopian marathon team, believes that all the athletes are in really good shape, currently in their final training weeks at a base in Addis Ababa.

“We have adapted the athletes’ training according to the course and conditions in Paris,” Adilo confirmed. “We’ve not changed the whole system of training, but rather changed some specific parts because of the course and conditions in Paris.”

Speaking about the women’s team, Adilo deliberately underplayed their strength. “Amane (Beriso) is our most experienced athlete in the women’s team. It’s difficult to say if she will podium or not as it’s a very strong field. Especially the Kenyans will be tough to beat.

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“The Paris course will not be easy – it’s a big challenge. In a championship race, it’s not just about the talent of the athlete (on easier courses) – this one is very challenging and anything could happen.”

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