05 DEC 2012 Feature Sululta, Ethiopia

Kenenisa Bekele’s field of dreams

Kenenisa Bekele running in Sululta (Paul Gains)Kenenisa Bekele running in Sululta (Paul Gains) © Copyright

Some men build a basketball court in their driveway or convert their garage into a recreation room. Kenenisa Bekele has gone to another extreme.

The 5000m and 10,000m World record-holder has built a six-lane all-weather track in the picturesque district of Sululta, which lies just 25 minutes outside the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and at an altitude of 2750m.

Across the road he has also constructed a 30-room hotel that will house athletes wishing to take advantage of Bekele's ‘field of dreams’.

Another 80-room hotel will be completed within the next six months. This one stands a few hundred metres away and is another part of a vision that Bekele, a three-time Olympic champion, has for supporting athletics in his native Ethiopia.

“I am so happy and proud of this,” said Bekele, during a tour for foreign visitors of the impressive facilities.

Show me the money

“It is not easy to build a track, financially. You have to have money to spend. You can try to make money back but I didn't care about making money from this track. It was very expensive. With the ground work, and everything, it has cost me $1.5 million. It was very tough to do for one athlete.”

After winning four consecutive IAAF World Championships 10,000m titles, three Olympic gold medals and 11 IAAF World Cross Country Championships victories, Bekele suffered a series of calf injuries which he believes were exacerbated by training on the hard surface of the national stadium in Addis Ababa.

As a result, he and his manager Jos Hermens consulted with the Dutch company GCC Sport Surfaces to manufacture a softer surface that would be beneficial to distance runners.

Bekele, now 30, firstly leased a large plot of land and then began the excavation process. Mounds of dirt still surround the track. At the moment the track is six lanes but Bekele says there is still room to add two more so they can host higher-level competitions in the future. Seating isn't planned but terraces will be fashioned to accommodate spectators.

“From the beginning I planned to have a sports centre and a camp,” explained Bekele.

“It is also very important because our track (in Addis Ababa) was not fantastic. It was a hard track for long distance runners. It can give you an injury if you train many times on it; that’s why I wanted to build this track.

“My plan was to build phase-by-phase but I built it all in the beginning because I also need it for my own training. I had been injured for a long time; that’s why I planned to build it. We have started to invite athletes who want to train on it, both local and foreigners.”

The official opening will be next month in January 2013. Bekele hopes to recoup some of his investment and says athletes may rent rooms for short term or long term use. The cost will likely be between $50 and $60 a night, including meals.

Freedom of the forest

Bekele points to the nearby Entoto mountain range which rises to 3200m above sea level and says that it is also possible to run 20 miles on the forest trails in the mountains. 

There are woods along the flat terrain immediately behind his hotel where cattle and goats graze. Local runners pass them without fear.

Bekele is clear about why he chose the Sululta area for his ambitious project.

“I train four or five times a week here, sometimes twice a day. This is a very beautiful area. It’s a very safe place. If they (other runners) want to train in the mountains you can as they are near. There is a flat area too. Everything is fantastic.”

“It is also very close to the city, only about seven to 10 kilometres out, so it’s very close. The air is very clean. It is surrounded by mountains. It’s flat and very green. A lot of trees, it is fantastic for training so that’s why I chose it. It is a special place for me.”

No surprisingly, there are other benefits to training at the 'Kenenisa Camp'.

“Of course, of course, I will guide them,” he promised, “I will train with them and share my experience. They will see the reality when they can train with me: if they can.”

With that, Bekele laughed and set off on a run through the nearby forest.

Paul Gains for the IAAF