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Tuesday, September 27, 2005
FEATURE-Athletics-Ethiopians turn mental strength into gold

Reuters

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 said.

"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."

WORST PERFORMANCE

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 championships.

HARD TRAINING

Nerurkar said Ethiopian athletes had simple aspirations and wanted to follow in the footsteps of the country's heroes of distance running.

"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.