Tuesday, September 27, 2005
FEATURE-Athletics-Ethiopians turn mental strength into gold
By Isa Omok
NAIROBI, Sept 28 - Mental strength, relaxed
running and respect for women have allowed Ethiopia to surpass
neighbours Kenya as the world's premier distance-running nation,
leading manager Jos Hermens says.
Hermens, who manages almost all the top Ethiopian runners
including multiple world and Olympic 10,000 metres champion
Kenenisa Bekele, said Ethiopians had a relaxed style when racing
while Kenyans looked tense.
"This is where Bekele beats (Kenya's 2003 world 5,000 metres
champion) Eliud Kipchoge, who is equally talented but becomes
too serious and stiff on the track," the Dutchman told Reuters
in a telephone interview.
"Athletics has become so scientific that athletes beat
rivals on such technical issues. A mentally prepared athlete can
easily beat a physically prepared one," added Hermens, speaking
from Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Ethiopian men, led by Bekele, swept all the 10,000 metres
medals at last year's Olympics in Athens. The nation's women won
gold and bronze in 5,000 metres at the Games.
Bekele took the 10,000 metres title at the Helsinki world
championships last month while Tirunesh Dibaba won an historic
double with gold in the women's 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
Ethiopia finished third in the medals table, behind the United
States and Russia.
"Ethiopians have more respect for their women, which
explains why their women athletes perform better than their
Kenyan counterparts, who excel in junior championships only to
pander to cultural and domestic demands later in life," Hermens
"They get distracted and are married when they should be
running. Some fall victims to bad influence from the wrong
people who exploit them and are only interested in their money."
Kenya, which has watched some of its best athletes defect to
Gulf states in return for financial rewards, suffered its worst
world championship performance in years, winning only one gold
in Helsinki -- for Benjamin Limo in the 5,000 metres.
Hermens said Kenya's poor performance came despite the
country having a better athletics system than Ethiopia.
"Although Ethiopia has 70 million people, compared to
Kenya's 30 million, the latter has more depth in athletics
talent, a better infrastructure and system of identifying
talented athletes," Hermens said.
Kenya has some 2,000 international athletes running in road
races and marathons across the world, while Ethiopia has a
national squad of only 120 athletes, running all distances but
mainly from 1,500 metres up.
Former British cross-country and marathon runner Richard
Nerurkar, who organises the annual Great Ethiopian 10-kilometre
Run in Addis Ababa, said there were far fewer managers handling
Ethiopians than Kenyans which made selection for global
competitions much easier.
"There are lots of reasons for this, some to do with how the
Kenyan and Ethiopian federations operate, some to do with
language (English is much more widely spoken in Kenya) and some
also to do with the ease or otherwise of obtaining visas to
travel overseas," he said.
Athletics Kenya officials have accused money-conscious
managers of entering their athletes in too many meetings,
affecting their performances at events such as the world
Nerurkar said Ethiopian athletes had simple aspirations and
wanted to follow in the footsteps of the country's heroes of
"Hunger for success from the athletes and lots of hard
training will make them always aspire to be top athletes. For
many, it's a way out of poverty. They live at high altitude and
lead simple lifestyle, simple aspirations," he said.
"Ethiopians have great heroes and role models. There is
relative peace and stability in the country (compared to the
1970s and 1980s)," said Nerurkar.
"In the recent African junior championships (in Tunisia), an
Ethiopian won a silver in the 100 metres so there is some
interest in the sprints, but nothing like what it is in the
longer distances. This is unlikely to change," said Nerurkar.
Hermens said the influence of two-time Olympic and four-time
world 10,000 metres champion Haile Gebrselassie on the younger
Ethiopian generation was huge.
"They all want to be like Haile, hence the big number of
athletes running 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres. In Kenya, many
young athletes want to run steeplechase and marathon like their
earlier heroes, like Moses Kiptanui and Paul Tergat," he said.
Gebrselassie, who retired from the track after finishing
fifth in the 10,000 metres in Athens and has turned his
attention to marathons, has influenced a brigade of talented
athletes including Bekele and African champion Sihine Sileshi.
"They always want to win and win. Bekele will remain a
champion for 10 years. He would like to go on and on like
Gebrselassie did," said Hermens.