Turkey’s Olympic 5000m and 10,000m silver medallist Elvan Abeylegesse is an enigma of sorts to millions of athletics viewers around the world.
The 26-year-old has barely competed in the big-money one-day athletics meeting around the world over the last three years. Yet, and when it really matters, she has come up with medals in the major championships and the Olympic Games.
“It is not really my own choice,” she says. “At the end of 2005, I had problems with my kidneys and had kidney stones removed. I could not race properly. I have also been suffering an Achilles heel injury in the last two years and my coach has advised me from racing frequently to prevent further injuries.”
When she is not troubled by injury, however, Abeylegesse has managed to produce truly world class performance in her limited major championship appearances. In fact, the only runner to have got the better of the Turk is former compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba, who has picked up two Olympic gold medals, one World championship title, and a world 5000m record in the last two outdoor track seasons not forgetting her many global triumphs indoors and in cross country running.
As well as her two silvers behind Dibaba in Beijing, Abeylegesse was runner-up to her former compatriot in the World Championships 10,000m in Osaka, and her time at 10,000m at the Olympics was the third fastest time ever run in the history of the event.
“I was really delighted by the outcome of Beijing,” she says. “The event was memorable in that it had great organiaation and it was the dream Olympics. No athlete goes into competition expecting defeat, but I am happy with my two silver medals.”
Although Esret Apak won Turkey’s first ever Olympic athletics medal in the men’s Hammer Throw in 2004 (he was upgraded from fourth after doping violations), Abeylegesse’s successes in recent years have transformed a country, which was previously unknown for its athletics performance.
Abeylegesse has also been rewarded for her performances with a lucrative bonus by the Turkish Federation and her government reportedly earning USD 500,000 for her two Beijing silver medals.
“I am really grateful for the support Turkey provides me,” she says. “Always when I step on the track, I want to make Turkey’s people happy. This country has done a lot for me. I can only do so much.”
Abeylegesse has come a long way since her early running days in the country of her birth Ethiopia. Born with the name Hewan Abeye to her factory-employed father and her housewife mother in a family of seven, Abeylegesse started running in school and even recalls her first ever competition, a 100m sprint race.
“I did not know anything about athletics or running in lanes,” she recalls. “I started in lane one and ended up in lane 3 at the end of the race. I finished third, but was disqualified. I will never forget that race.”
Abeylegesse quickly learnt to adapt to the rigours of training and competition joining the Prisons sports club, which has produced Ethiopian running champions like two-time Olympic 10000m champion Derartu Tulu and double Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba, in 1996 at a tender age of just 14.
It was not long before she made her international debut in an EOC solidarity race in Moscow where she finished third over 3000m, in 1998. A year later, she represented Ethiopia at the World Cross Country Championships finishing ninth in the junior race.
A year later, with Abeylegesse feeling that her chances of representing Ethiopia in major competitions and earning a living from big-money races outside the country were limited given the large talent pool that exists in the country, she gladly accepted an offer from Turkey.
“I went there to compete for the Enka club,” she says. “The club was quite good with the way they dealt with talent. I was only 16 years old and they were careful to provide training according to my age. We also had one coach for every athlete which was very different from Ethiopia where one coach trains twenty or thirty athletes. In Ethiopia, we also trained with the seniors at a very young age and were always fighting to keep our place in the club team. I did not have that threat here. Therefore, I thrived.”
It took another four years before her big break came at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. A 21-year old Abeylegesse finished fifth in a highly tactical battle that saw Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba win a surprise 5000m title before turning 18.
“I was not surprised that she won because this is sport,” says Abeylegesse. “But I was happy that I managed to compete against top runners like Gabriela Szabo and Berhane Adere and finish fifth. It gave me confidence.”
World record performance in Oslo
A year later, she emerged with an even bigger impact smashing the seven-year old world 5000m record by nearly four seconds in Bergen, the makeshift venue for the Bislett Games- IAAF Golden League meeting- in Norway, while the usual stadium was being rebuilt in Oslo. Her winning time, 14:24.68, was the first sub 14.25 performance by a woman over the distance and Abeylegesse admits she opened the door to possibilities.
“I feel that I dared something no had done before,” she says of her performance that took women’s 5000m into a new level. “I think it is because I broke the World record that other runners in the event gained confidence that the record was possible.”
Her record made her the odds-on favourite for the Olympic title in Athens, but she shocked many by finishing twelfth in the final after putting on a gallant effort in the middle of the race to unsettle the main challengers.
“Before Athens, I trained at high altitude in Turkey in a place which completely different weather,” she explains of her sudden demise. “My body did not adapt well to the surroundings and that is why I struggled.”
She also vehemently denies reports claiming that possible threats to her family members in Addis Ababa might have unsettled her bid to become the first Turk to win an Olympic gold. “This is completely untrue,” she says. “My reason for not achieving the result everyone expected is lack of acclimatisation.”
Yet, she relied back to form late that season dipping under 15 minutes to win the World Athletics Final 5000m race in 14:59.19.
Injuries and illness
Injury problems and kidney stones nearly wiped out her entire 2005 season and even limited her 2006 appearance to just the 5000m race the European Championships in Gothenburg where she finished third. But silver medal performances in Osaka and Beijing have helped her emerge as one of the major contenders in women’s distance running.
Despite her change of allegiance, Abeylegesse continues to enjoy strong home ties with Ethiopia, her country of birth. She trains in the outskirts of Addis Ababa with her younger brother Dereje, who has so far taken part in some road races in Turkey, and is engaged to Semeneh Debele, an Ethiopian she has been seeing for nearly eight years.
However, she has also continued her assimilation in her adopted country. In addition to fluently speaking Turkish, Abeylegesse’s favourite movies are Turkish television dramas including Noor, a romantic soap opera whose Arabic version is providing quite a hit throughout the Middle East and Arab-speaking countries.
Abeylegesse maintains a strictly professional relationship with her former compatriots and claims they are big rivals on the track, but “exchange greetings” off it.
“All of them are like athletes I meet when I train and compete around the world,” she says. “I really do not know them much as a person. We do say hello to each other when we meet, but that is it.”
Ambitions for 2009: Berlin and records
“The new year always brings new hopes and ambitions for me,” says Abeylegesse. ”This year, I have many hopes and ambitions.”
Her main target this year is to win gold at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Berlin, Germany (15 – 23 August 2009), but she also has other ambitions including possible World record attempts at 10,000m and 10km road.
“I always think about World records,” she says. “It is not difficult to break a World record as long as I have good weather, good pacemakers, and perfect preparation.”
She will have to do without long-time Russian coach Anatoliy Bychkov who parted with her club and the Federation after the Olympics. But Abeylegesse is optimistic anything is possible if she can stay healthy and injury free.
“Anything is possible including a World record at 10,000m,” she says. “If I am healthy and not injured, there are many dreams I want to pursue.”
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF