Young boys tend to look up to their older brothers and Ayele Abshero was no different. Tessema Abshero was born four years before Ayele and was among Ethiopia’s best young Cross Country runners before developing into a 2:08 marathoner.
“I began running because my brother is a runner and I followed his example,” Ayele reflected here last night, sitting patiently on the Ethiopian table, waiting for his dinner, at the Final Banquet for the 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
There as a guest of royalty – the invitations had come from His Royal Highness Prince Feisal Al Hussein (LOC Patron) – Ethiopia’s athletics ‘royalty’ was missing. No Haile Gebrselassie – he has long since given up Cross Country – no 2008 World Cross champions Kenenisa Bekele or Tirunesh Dibaba.
But wait. A new generation of Ethiopian athletics ‘royalty’ is on its way. Three of the four individual titles contested here yesterday were won by Ethiopians, 18-year-old Abshero taking the Junior Men’s, 18-year-old Genzebe Dibaba the Junior Women’s and 24-year-old Gebre Gebremariam the Senior Men’s.
Already thinking ahead
After following his individual silver medal at the 2008 World Cross, in Edinburgh, with a clinical victory here – he remained buried in the lead group before pouncing for the prize up the final hill – Abshero was soon thinking ahead. To the short and long-term.
“Next year I will no longer be competing as a junior, so I hope to train well and be able to get gold,” he said.
Bekele accomplished the feat in 2002, taking the Senior title the season after winning Junior gold, but no other athlete has managed it in the history of the championships, which succeeded the traditional ‘International’ event in 1973. In fact Gebremariam’s triumph here made him only the second athlete to have won IAAF Senior Men’s and Junior Men’s individual World Cross titles.
“For the long term I just hope to work hard and to be able to take the place of the famous athletes in whose footsteps I am now following,” Abshero added. For him, the footsteps of Gebrselassie have laid the deepest tracks.
Asked which athletes he admired most, Abshero said: “All of them but especially Gebrselassie because he has been winning for so long. From the beginning it has always been Haile I have admired the most and who has inspired me the most.”
For a journalist, it is always a challenge to sum up Gebrselassie’s achievements in a single sentence so let’s just say here that he has accomplished everything in the sport – except the one thing that Abshero has now. An individual gold medal from the World Cross. Six attempts, no victories.
Gebrselassie’s latest great accomplishment, a World record in the marathon in September, may seems a long way down the path for Abshero but don’t think he hasn’t thought about the distance. “Although I will be running on the track for a while, my long-term goal is to run on the road, and I do hope to be able to follow in his (Gebrselassie’s) footsteps,” Abshero said.
The new World champion was on Gebrselassie’s radar even before yesterday. “Although I know a lot about him, he didn’t really know me, but after I beat Kenenisa he came to know more about me,” Abshero reflected, referring to his 15km victory over the injured third-placed Bekele in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, in November.
Abshero, then only 17, clocked 42:17, a time which survived 2008 as the third quickest in the world. However, lacking in his CV up to now is a big performance on the track.
“It is true I don’t have such good results on the track but I have a best time for 5000m of 13:35,” Abshero said. “I think I have just worked at the cross country more and I need more experience on the track. When it comes to cross country I have been training with some of the top athletes and I think that has helped me do well.”
From an area in southern Ethiopia with little tradition of supplying the country’s top runners, Abshero hopes to become a flagbearer. “Because there have not been other great athletes to come from that area I am happy to be the first,” he said. “But I also believe that there will be many others who will follow in my footsteps as well.”
David Powell for the IAAF