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Haile Gebrselassie assists in Media Training Workshop for elite Ethiopian athletes in Addis Ababa

Haile Gebrselassie assists in Media Training Workshop for elite Ethiopian athletes in Addis Ababa
Anna Legnani for the IAAF

19 March 2002 - As part of its media development strategy, the IAAF Communications Department staged the second media training workshop for elite athletes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Aimed at improving the media skills of top runners, this project, along with Focus on Africans, a parallel initiative which will result in the compilation of comprehensive biographies to be distributed to the media, is aimed at helping African athletes to improve their image, bringing out their unique personalities and helping to promote the sport of Athletics.

The Addis Ababa workshop was run by Richard Nerurkar, former top British marathon runner who has been living in the Ethiopian capital since May 2001. He was assisted by Anna Legnani, IAAF Deputy Director of Communications, and responsible for Media Development Projects.

14 March 2002, ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Airlines flight 735 from Frankfurt lands in Bole International Airport at 7:45, ten minutes ahead of schedule. The hotel shuttle takes me to the Hilton. Twenty minutes later Richard Nerurkar is in the lobby, and we set off. Today’s’ session is for the group of marathon runners, tomorrow will be the turn of the cross country athletes putting the finishing touches on their preparation for the world championships scheduled in Dublin in ten days.

The venue of the Media Training Workshop is the Haile Gebrselassie Building in Haile Gebrselassie Avenue. The two times Olympic Champions and quadruple World Champion, who lent his offices, is ever present in the examples used by Richard, who introduces the workshop by asking, “Can you tell me how much Haile will be earning to compete in London Marathon and why he deserves it?  Because he is arguably the greatest runner of all times, and because he is so good with the media.”

The session proceeds with exercises to break the ice and make the athletes relax. “Come on,” urges Richard, “I see you in training and you are always joking and smiling – that is how the media wants to know you!”

Then come short presentations by the athletes in front of the camera, played back on the video and commented by all. Posture, expression, tone and level of voice, fluidity of speech, everything comes under scrutiny. 

When Haile himself joins the workshop, the advice he gives his fellow athletes is precious: “Most athletes are only good at running, but giving good interviews is very important. The meeting organisers look at what appears in the newspapers, and if you are good he invites you back. And remember, when you are giving an interview, you are the boss, so relax!”

One who has already learned a good part of the lesson is Tesfaye Jifar, who has blossomed since the last time I saw him at the World Half Marathon Championships in Bristol last October, where he had placed second. His victory a month later in the New York Marathon has given him great confidence, and he is relaxed and self-assured in front of the camera and when facing the questions of his colleagues in a mock press conference. Where he shows his best skills though is in the pertinent questions he fires back at them when he switches to playing the journalist, and in his pointed analysis of their performance.

Getachew  Kebede, winner of Djibouti Half-Marathon last month, keeps his gaze lowered shyly as he answers questions in the press conference. “You have beautiful eyes, we want to see them, they speak!” is the advice he receives and as he explains that he is naturally reserved, he already looks steadfastly at his interlocutor.

The best performance of the day, overshadowing even that of his great friend Haile, comes from the exuberant Abraha Assefa who briefly recounts his amazing story with smiling face and vivid gestures. “I started running to escape. First when I was a child: after my parents’ divorce, I was living with my uncle. Things did not go well with him, so I escaped, came to Addis and joined the army. It was the time of the war, and one day I was parachuted with fifty other soldiers on the front and at the end of the day I was the only one alive. So I looked around and thought it would be better to join the athletes, and I escaped again to become one of them.” Abreham, who admits he would have loved to become an actor, will surely provide a great show in the post-race interview if he does well in Boston Marathon.

15 March 2002

Assefa Mezgebu is the first of the cross country team to arrive, impeccably elegant in a black suit with pin striped jacket and white knit shirt. He has brought with him the handout from the first media training course, conducted in May 2000 in Hengelo by Mike Whittingham.

When he introduces himself before the camera he is eloquent and relaxed, and in announcing that “my next competition are the World Championships in Dublin, and I am going for gold,” there is no hint of bragging, just the calm assuredness of an athlete who is now becoming fully aware of his value.

Sixteen year old Tirunesh Dibaba, who already placed fifth in the junior race last year, is composed and articulate in her replies, although her soft voice would not carry even to the first row of journalists in the post-race interview room.

The shiest one today is Hailu Mekonnen, who won the junior title in 1999 and took bronze in the short cross. When his friends gently mock him for fidgeting in front of the camera he bravely replies, “I am here to learn!” A pity that Kenenisa Bekele, who performed even better than Mekonnen in 2001, with silver at 4km and gold in the junior race, and is heralded by many as a favourite for the short cross title in Dublin, did not take the opportunity.

As the reigning Olympic Champion at 5000m, Million Wolde and his team mates head off, Haile Gebrselassie arrives after a gruelling session of repetitions up the Entoto Hills, at 3000m above sea level. In the restaurant where he has invited us for lunch he tells us that all the athletes were discussing the workshop. “Those who came wished this had been organised earlier, those who did not attend wished they had come. All the talk was about the media training. It is important that they understand. There is so much competition nowadays from other sports, we athletes have to help to promote Athletics.”

Participating athletes:
Tirunesh DIBABA
Tesfaye JIFAR
Getachew KEBEDE
Tefaye TOLA
Workinesh TOLA
Ababa TOLA
Million WOLDE