THE CULTURE OF RUNNING IN EAST AFRICA

     Take away that they have grown up at an altitude higher than the New York Yankees salary cap, and cut the air like six-inch stilettos, one reason the Kenyans and Ethiopians kick everyone’s butt in distance running is, well, what are the options?

Go to any East African village famous for producing championship runners and you’re not likely to find assorted currency manipulators, arbitrageurs, or Bernie Madoff-like schemers. And that just might be the corollary to why America has only intermittently produced world-class distance runners. We produce world-class most everything else. Something’s gotta give.

A post-industrial society is not running’s ideal seed bed. Instead, running is better suited to individual achievement and general fitness. An agrarian society, on the other hand, especially one formed at high altitude, is running’s most fecund soil.

You spend a few hours a day tending the animals and crops, walking high-country dirt roads for transportation, eating fresh, unpolluted food, and dreaming big dreams in the black night air of winning thousands of life-transforming dollars at races in far flung capitals – like every fourth fellow in the village seems to have done – and maybe running tops your to-do list tomorrow, too. By the same token, find yourself with an underwater mortgage working part-time on stuffed-crust pizzas, maybe your chances of fleetness have deteriorated a tad.

“Anything is Possible”

A mural on the side of a building in downtown Addis Ababa shows Haile Gebrselassie in full stride.  Ethiopia’s iconic runner and one of, if not the best ever has his motto alongside, “Anything is possible”, writ large in Amharic, one of the principle languages of the country.

It is a motto for every child in east Africa to see. Whether true or not in a country where 14 million people are endangered by famine is another question, but to understand what motivates the children, and see why running is held in such high regard, all you need to do is drive a few kilometers out of Addis along the Sarris Road.

A two-lane affair hosting pedestrian amblings, traffic weavings, goats and cows gullying alongside untended heading toward some the mysterious domesticated animal place —  though a gentle toot is enough to guide them safely aside. After slaloming past a final stalled cow in the middle of the road, you shall arrive.

“It’s called St. Joseph’s Cemetery,” announced our friend Belay Welasha. “Where all the famous people of Ethiopia are buried.”

Turning in, every head stone is caged in reinforced steel rods.

“Why are all the headstones covered?”

“So the people will not steal the marble.”

Belay Wolasha & Mike Long at Abebe Bikila’s Grave

And there, in the very center of the cemetery sits the grave of two-time Olympic marathon champion, Abebe Bikila, Africa’s original running hero, barefoot winner of the Olympic Marathon in Rome 1960 and again in Tokyo 1964, though this time shod.  A small plot of unkempt grass surrounded the bronze statue of the legendary runner, accented by a barbed-wire fence linked with the five Olympic rings.

It would be as if Frank Shorter would one day be laid to rest in the prime plot at Arlington National Cemetery. A few years later Ethiopia’s second great runner, Mamo Wolde, gold medal winner at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Marathon, was accorded a similar honor with a memorial alongside Bikila.

“I will live in the palace one day”

After our return to town we stopped at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs across from the sparkling (then) new Sheraton Hotel. Our producer Rich Jayne headed inside to seek the release form to retrieve his video camera which had been held up at customs upon our arrival at the airport. Mike, Belay, and I waited outside, sitting along the curb with our backs to a wall surrounding the ministry to avoid the warming sun.

From our shaded perch we watched as school children walked past in their blue uniform trousers, books tucked neatly. Some wore red sweaters, others green, some blue, each to announce their particular school.

“How are you?”

We looked up to see a young boy approach out of the sun smoking a cigarette. His eyes were wide and alert.

“My name is Engda.”

“Are you in school?”

“No. I am a film director.”

“A film director,” nodded Mike with a conspiratorial smile.

“Yes, and I am a business man, boyfriend, athlete,” rattled off young Engda flicking the ash off his cigarette. “I am all of these. You name it.”

A rail-thin boy who claimed to be 15, but who looked no more than 12, Engda was an urchin hustler living on his wits and little else. His eyes were sharp, searching, constantly angling for an edge, an opportunity. He wore tattered nylon pants, and a plastic Union Jack glued to a red headpiece – like a beanie. A dreamer, schemer, and charlatan rolled into one.  Wherever he was from, Engda was more fluent on Europe, America, and South America than one would expect. He spoke French, and his English came at a jackrabbit’s gait.

“I live in that mud hole down along the front of the ministry compound,” he informed us. “But I will live in the palace one day, and have many wives, too.”

As Mike and Engda continued, I noticed another very young boy lingering on our periphery pleading with his eyes. A ripped beige sweater clung to his bony frame; his toes cracked like worn leather. It was disquieting to see the level of poverty, the scope of the need. Unlike Engda, however, this youngster could never muster the courage to approach. Nor did I reach out.

After forty-five minutes Rich returned somewhat disconsolate from his meeting within the ministry.

“I talked with this guy who said, ‘There is no problem with what you ask’. But then he tells me that it wasn’t his decision to make. Said I had to go to the Ministry of Information and fill out some more forms there.”

Bidding adieu to master Engda, who went off in search of new fields to conquer, we piled back into Belay’s Opel for the short drive to the Ministry of Information. I could already tell that before it was all said and done, in order to get Rich’s camera back we were going to end up talking to the Minister of Lens-caps and Tripods.

**********

Follow the fortunes of professional boxing in America, and you can trace the immigrant’s path to the middle class through the 20th century. Boxing, like running, is a bootstrap sport, it requires very little in the way of equipment, but a great deal of heart, dedication and belief.

In east Africa where 90% of the population still pull a hard-scrabble existence from a bare countryside, or like young Engda, scrape out a threadbare existence in a city beneath which lies no safety net, a middle class is non-existent. Instead, islands of extreme wealth float in a sea of want, and one of the very few routes available to the average citizen to reach one of those precious tiny islands is through distance running. For a fortunate number, it is a route aided by a birth at high altitude, and the following wind of that same birth in a land where $500- $800 is the annual wage, and 50 years is considered a full life expectancy. Who wouldn’t choose to run from that?

END

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13 comments on “THE CULTURE OF RUNNING IN EAST AFRICA

  1. Yared Tekle says:

    Great article. As an Ethiopian, the pride me and other Ethiopians feel for our country is strong. While the rest of the world wants to feel bad for us based on the poverty seen on infomercials, we understand the struggles present within our country but at the same time, bright points like our distance running program fill us with hope and pride.

    Here in America the best athletes play football or baseball, they dont view distance running as a money maker sport. Even sprinting has more attention in the Track world than distance running. The definition of fast is a 9.58 100m sprint, not a sub 4 minute mile. But when you go Ethiopia or Kenya, they could care less about the 100m dash, fast over there is a 26 minute 10k.

  2. nancytinarirunswrites says:

    Colorful and moving…I loved your portrait of Engda.

  3. […] The culture of running in East Africa. […]

  4. bill bailey says:

    Excellent insight into an enigmatic phenomenon. Haile affected the course of my life with his performances in 1995 (I embarked on a fairly successful second competitive career as a U.S. masters track runner). I can only imagine the influence he must have over youngsters throughout Ethiopia.

  5. Mick Bourke says:

    Read it here for why they are so good: – http://www.altitudeheretic.blogspot.com
    It’s not about altitude but about attitude, and a few other things.

  6. jenn says:

    Toni, great write up. While it is true that the East Africans live lives of hardship, it takes more than just poverty and a good diet to be great runners. They train darn hard and they have the strength and determination to be champions. Let us also not assume that all of Kenya and all of Ethiopia produce these champs, there are certain areas and tribes where running is seen as a way out.

  7. matt says:

    Culture, Society, Economics, Geography as this article eludes to, are the elements of East African distance running dominance in my opinion. Good article.

  8. khalfish says:

    Any sports culture can be born anywhere wherever there are pioneers to set up the course. For instance when Kipchoge Keino a famous Kenyan runner ran for his country, he didn’t do it for money or fame. Those were the days when people go to the Olympics for patriotism.

    I am also sure when Abebe Bikila ran the Tokyo Olympics barefooted he wasn’t thinking of future appearance fees.

    The reason why Africans were so determined in those days to be at the top of the world in any sports that they participated in was to hit back at the colonialist regimes that treated them as second class citizens and to prove to the world that they have what it takes to stand on their on.

    This is no different to the success of many black Americans in the US to hit back at the slavery them days.

    When money came into play, the winning spirit base of African runners was well set, and the origin of that spirit was deeply rooted. It will take many a generations for such spirit to wane.

    If Africans were given opportunity to do the short sprints in the colonial times they could have been on the top as well. For instance, Seraphino Antao was a Kenyan sprinter who won a commonwealth Gold medal in Australia in 1952.

  9. John says:

    I ran my second marathon at the 2000 San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. It was a disastrous race for me personally. I cramped up at Mile 16 and literally shuffled in. The only time I could muster a run was the last 200 yards to the finish, at which point I collapsed over the finish line, over an hour and a half after the winner, to be taken into the medical tent. While lying there, a slender black fellow came up to me and said, “Good race” and placed a wooden bracelet on my wrist. I thought it was a dream. Later I asked the doctor who that was…he said it was the winner of the marathon, Belay Wolasha. As bad as a marathon it was for me, it will be forever the most special one.

  10. Toni Reavis says:

    John,

    Great memory of the 2000 Rock `n` Roll Marathon. Very hot day, and the early leaders burned themselves out as Belay maintained an even pace to victory. He continues to be a generous, warm-hearted soul.

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