Yomif Kejelcha leads the 5000m at the IAAF World Junior Championships Oregon 2014 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

In search of the next Gebrselassie or Bekele

“Ethiopian running is very poor right now,” says the taxi driver when asked to drive to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation offices.

In a country where Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba are household names, and where the populace is used to dominating middle and long distance running on the track, there is a sense of desperation. Who, they ask, is going to resurrect their good fortunes?

Gebrselassie and Bekele each won four world titles and two Olympic gold medals in the 10,000m. The latter’s 11-medal tally at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships is another impressive reminder from a bygone era. Ethiopian media call the current state of affairs a ‘transition period’ while the federation looks to youth for the answer.

“It is very tough, you know Kenenisa and Haile are the best athletes and they are unique because Haile was running for about 20 years,” says Dube Jilo, the technical director of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. “This is amazing. And Kenenisa is still an active athlete now.

“So replacing these two guys is very difficult. We are trying to develop good young new athletes like Yomif Kejelcha and Hagos Gebrhiwet. Maybe for the future these two athletes can replace them. We will try but we can never have runners like Haile and Kenenisa. This is a big challenge.”

Much was expected of the 18-year-old Kejelcha after he won IAAF Diamond League 5000m races in Brussels, Rome and Eugene last summer and running a world-leading time of 12:53.98. But in a slow tactical race he could finish only fourth at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015. Gebrhiwet, 21, meanwhile took the bronze.

Jilo and other Ethiopians involved at the highest level of the sport point to a general lack of competitive 10,000m races these days as one reason their search for a new superstar has not come to fruition. He laments the fact many young athletes are going straight to road racing where they can earn more money.

“When you are comparing the time when Haile and Kenenisa competed in the 10,000m, there were a lot of 10,000m races in the world,” says Haji Adilo, one of the most productive coaches. “Now, I think there is only the Olympics and World Championships and the trials. When you are thinking about that, it is difficult for these athletes to fit in the 10,000m.

“Yomif will have no problem when he comes up to 10,000m. If there were a lot of 10,000s in the world, a lot of young athletes would come up like Haile and Kenenisa.”

There is also a mental side to the equation, says Adilo. Britain’s Mo Farah has supplanted the Ethiopians winning two Olympic and two World Championships 10,000m golds and it seems his success has put fear into the minds of potential rivals.

“Haile and Kenenisa, those athletes are pushing the pace from the beginning; they don’t worry about the others,” says Haji Adilo. “Now, if it’s Mo Farah in the competition and other very strong athletes, they are thinking not only about themselves but thinking about athletes competing together. This mentality is a little bit different from Haile and Kenenisa.

“The talent is there. If I am talking about Kejelcha his talent is there. In one way maybe it’s better than Haile and Kenenisa in what he has shown us in the beginning. Now we will see if, with experience, he can reach Haile and Kenenisa’s level.”

The Ethiopian Athletics Federation currently supports 345 athletes from youth to senior age level. In addition to supplying each with clothing and shoes, they provide the athletes with about 1000 Birr (US $47) a month, enough to pay rent for a small house. The athletics clubs also provide money to offset living expenses.

Although Kejelcha is coached by the Ethiopian national youth coach, he often attends Haji Adilo’s training sessions in Sendafa and Sululta, joining athletes such as world marathon champion Mare Dibaba, Boston marathon winners Lelisa Desisa and Deriba Merga and, on occasion, three-time Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba who is returning following the birth of her son eight months ago.

While Bekele, 33, is slowly regaining fitness following a lengthy calf injury, he too wonders what the next generation can accomplish.

“At this time I can't see anyone, nobody,” says Bekele. “It is difficult. Maybe in the future we can expect another in the next generation but I what I see now, I can't see anyone running like me or like Haile. I can't see that.

“Sometimes you feel just sorry that the new generation goes for other races (and not 10,000m); it is hurting us every time. There are many issues. I feel sorry for that future generation. The future is not good.”

Although he made his marathon debut at the 2014 Paris event – running a course record of 2:05:03 – Bekele says he doesn’t rule out a return to the 10,000m once he is training properly.

“Really I can't say now whether I will run the marathon or the 10,000m at this time,” he says. “I want to focus on my training for now. We will see in the future with the results. I also want to run the 10,000m if I can. If I qualify in both the marathon and the 10,000m, I can decide which one. Now I can't say 10,000m or marathon.”

Two years ago Bekele beat Mo Farah in the half marathon at the Great North Run. Pressed to describe how he would tackle Farah on the track, he smiles.

“That is a difficult question,” he says. “I cannot explain my tactics. I don't want my competitors to know my tactics. That is for when I get into shape. We will see. It is better to show him during the race and not give him information now.”

Paul Gains for the IAAF