Jelly shoes and mud – running in Ethiopia

At a conference on athletics in Addis Ababa, the focus is on what Ethiopia can learn from the west. But should we be looking to them for the secrets of success?

The runners begin to arrive at Jan Meda racecourse in Addis Ababa at around 5am, an hour before the sun rises and the Ethiopian day starts. By 7am, some people have been training for two hours. The impression is not one of careful organisation. People train alone, in twos or in groups. They run clockwise, anticlockwise, or just zig-zag all over the place. The youngest is about nine years old, the oldest must be more than 60.

The pace, too, is unpredictable, something I realise as I attempt to run with other people. In the phalanxes of four or five runners that form, the strongest runner at the front dictates the pace and the direction, while others slow to a jog when the pace gets too hot, rejoining when they have recovered.

It is kiremt – rainy season – at the moment, and the field has patches of mud of varying viscosity that seems to cling to the shoes with a greater tenacity than the English garden variety. The runners’ weaving routes and sudden U-turns do not appear to be dictated by a wish to avoid the mud, and it often feels as if the leaders are actively seeking out the puddles to test those behind them. I follow one group for 20 minutes, cursing my lack of spikes, before I notice that the runner in front of me is wearing a pair of jelly sandals and skipping across the mud with ease.

According to Benoit Gaudin, a sociologist with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and Addis Ababa University, the runners here are, for the most part, not attached to the clubs and institutions of Ethiopian athletics. Most of them have jobs outside athletics, often in the informal sector. When they finish training, they clean shoes, drive minibuses or hawk T-shirts, books, chewing gum and cigarettes in the city. They are the aspirants, following in the footsteps of the great athletes who have run the Ethiopian cross-country championships on this field, trying to soak up some of that magic from the energy-sapping ground and hoping to get strong enough to be noticed by a team or a manager.

I arrive at the East-African Athletics and Social Sciences conference with a faint headache that comes with attempting to run when not quite acclimatised to the 2,500 metre altitude – I feels as if I have been running a British cross-country race while breathing through a child-safe pen lid. The first day of the conference is something of an endurance test in itself – the schedule runs from 8.30am until 10pm.

Over the course of three days, there are 52 presentations, on topics ranging from the sociocultural determinants of performance to the economics of athletics, the psychology of athletes and disability sport. The majority of the contributors are from Ethiopia and Kenya, and I am struck by a recurring theme in the way people frame their questions. The most common way to open a question following a talk is, “How can we do more to …” Participants want to know how to improve the institutions governing athletics and grassroots infrastructure for the sport, and how to institutionalise sports psychology to improve performance. Above all, they talk about developing better facilities. This classic language of “catch up” to the way in which we approach the sport in the west seems incongruous in light of the fact that a glance at distance running’s podiums and ranking lists makes it clear who has to do the catching up.

The day after the conference finishes, I wake at 4.47am from an uneasy sleep that comes with knowing the alarm is set for 5am. I also manage to wake up the guard dog at the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies by shining my head-torch in his face. His reaction ensures I am wide awake when I board the bus full of athletes that collects me at 5.10am.

These runners are managed by Moyo Sports, one of the smaller athlete management companies operating in Ethiopia. Most of the runners on the bus have thin cotton shawls draped like hoods over their tracksuits, giving them the appearance of monks rather than runners as they try to catch a few minutes more sleep on the way to training. The bus picked up the first of the athletes at 4am, and some have had to travel to the pick-up points.

The occasional runner, taking the opportunity to train on the roads before the traffic and pollution become prohibitive, is picked out momentarily by the bus headlights, only to vanish, ghost-like, into the darkness. As we drive, dawn gradually breaks, revealing a dashboard cluttered with Christian iconography and two windscreen stickers. On the left is a white dove, on the right a Nike swoosh.

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