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Ethiopia: What We Can Learn from Our Distance Runners – By Alemayehu G. Mariam

October 14, 2012

By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Ethiopia is known for the best and the worst. Ethiopia is known for the legendary hospitality and charm of its people, unrivalled beauty of its picturesque landscape, fabulous coffee and, of course, unbeatable distance runners. Ethiopia is also known as the epicenter of human rights abuses, citadel of press repression and home to the largest population of political prisoners in Africa. Sadly, famine (or as the experts call it “acute/chronic malnutrition”) has marred the beautiful face of Ethiopia for decades. But Ethiopia is marching out of dictatorship into democracy, or should I say Ethiopians are running away from tyranny to freedom?
Ethiopia has produced a high percentage of the most competitive middle distance and distance runners in the world for the last two decades. The great Abebe Bikila was a trailblazer not just for Ethiopians but the entire continent. He was the first African to win a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Perceptive observers at the time noted that it took an entire division of the Italian Army to invade Ethiopia in 1935 but one barefooted member of the Imperial Guard to conquer Rome 25 years later. For Abe, it was all about duty, honor and country: “I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism.” So were the noble words of Ethiopia’s greatest athletic hero of all time. Abe repeated the same performance in Tokyo in 1964. Few noted the fact that Abe had triumphed in two former Axis capitals.

Others followed. Mamo Wolde won gold in the marathon event in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Mirus Yifter won gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m events at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Gezahegne Abera became the youngest marathon gold medalist in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In the past decade, Haile Gebreselassie dominated the distance events winning two Olympic gold medals and four World Championship titles in the the 10,000m. Haile broke so many world records and won so many titles that Runners World, America’s foremost track magazine, called him “the greatest distance runner of all time”. Kenenisa Bekele holds the world and Olympic records in both the 5,000m and 10,000m winning a double at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He had won the same events in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. His victories at the World Championships and other international championships are too numerous to list.

The women champions have been equally impressive. Tiki Gelana won gold in the women’s marathon event at the 2012 London Olympics with a time of 2:23:07, a new Olympic record. Fatuma Roba won gold in the same event at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Derartu Tulu won gold in the 10,000m event at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Tirunesh Dibaba won the 10,000m and 5,000m events in Beijing in 2008 with a repeat performance in the 2012 London Olympics in the 10,000m. Just last week, the Ethiopians made a clean sweep at the Chicago Marathon: Tsegaye Kebede won gold by crossing the finish line in 02:04:38, followed by Lilesa Feyisa at 02:04:52 and Regassa Tilahun at 02:05:27. Atsede Baysa won the women’s race in 02:22:03.

The list of Ethiopian distance runners who have won gold, silver and bronze in the Olympics, World Championships, World Marathon Majors and other international distance events is endless. Many have wondered about the athletic prowess of these distance runners. According to one researcher, “transcending all of the known physiological and environmental elements, the key variable [for the Ethiopians’ unending string of victories] is the hunger to succeed”.

Long Distance Running as a Metaphor for Ethiopian Politics

In a weekly commentary in November 2009, (“The Great Ethiopian Run to Freedom”), I wrote, “… The multitudes were not just running for freedom, they were also running away from tyranny and dictatorship, despair and hopelessness, and from their daily life of indignity and humiliation under a ruthless dictatorship. Sadly, they were all running in circles in the prison nation Ethiopia has become…” The distance run could be an apt metaphor for Ethiopian politics and the struggle to transition that country from dictatorship to democracy. The distance run is not merely a physical challenge but also a formidable test of mental fortitude. Running long distances requires great physical effort, but it also requires extraordinary stamina and endurance. The distance run is often painful, intense, strenuous, laborious and tedious. But the distance runner creates her own rhythm and tempo as she pounds the pavement and dirt road going up and down the hill sweating and thirsty, turning a corner with the wind pushing her back, the hot sun baking her face and exhaustion pulling every fiber of her sinewy muscles. The distance runner always looks forward with his eyes fixed on the prize notwithstanding the pain and strain. As Jacqueline Gareau, the 1980 Boston Marathon champ observed, “The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop but the mind must be strong. You always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy… It is not age; it is not diet. It is the will to succeed.”

The secret of the distance runners is the “will to succeed”, which for the Ethiopian runners is raised one notch to the “hunger to succeed.” Like our distance runners, we too must have the will and hunger to succeed in the race for democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia. The gold medal for democracy does not come by winning the 100m sprint or the 400m relay. The gold medal for freedom does not come by winning the 400m hurdle or the 1500m steeple chase. The gold medal for human rights does not come by winning the 200m spring. It comes at the end of a long, arduous and exhausting marathon over the mountain ridges of dictatorship, through the valleys of oppression, across treeless plains of injustice and waterless deserts of intolerance, arrogance and ignorance.

In the marathon race for democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia, we must think, feel and act like our distance runners. We must develop the special qualities of our distance runners. What are those qualities? First, they are not superhuman attributes. They are qualities which most of us possess but rarely use. Second, they are not physical qualities, but psychological, intellectual, mental and spiritual ones. Long distance runners are singularly focused. They set their sights on their objective and pursue it single-mindedly. They are not easily distracted. They keep on keeping on until they get to the finish line. They have fortitude, a mental toughness which gives them resoluteness, staying power, tenacity and perseverance. They will not give in or give up even when they experience excruciating pain, thirst and fatigue. They know they are not competing with those behind and in front of them but the voice inside their head that says, “It’s too hard, too long and too difficult. Give it up.” But distance runners who have the will and hunger to succeed have developed the mental, emotional and spiritual strength to face not only the daunting hills and menacing valleys but also any unexpected adversity along their way. They are unafraid and calmly plug away at a steady clip stretching their legs nimbly to the finish line.

Distance runners have steely determination and always prepare to win. They devise a plan of action for victory, but adjust it as they go along. They will even change it completely if the unexpected occurs because they are flexible and adaptive. As they prepare, they always maintain a winning attitude. Haile Gebreselassie said, “First, do enough training. Then believe in yourself and say: I can do it. Tomorrow is my day. And then say: the person in front of me, he is just a human being as well; he has two legs, I have two legs, that is all. That is mentally how you prepare.” They also believe that when they win, it is not a personal victory for them but a triumph for their people and country. That was what Abebe meant when he said, “I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism.”

Distance runners have vision which is the “art of seeing what is invisible to others.” They can visualize their objective even when the finish line is shielded from view by hills and winding roads. In their mind’s eye, they see themselves entering the stadium for their victory lap or dashing the last hundred meters to the finish line to set a new record. They have endurance which is a mental and spiritual quality that keeps them going beyond what they believe to be their limits and helps them overcome weariness of body and affliction of spirit. Distance runners have confidence in themselves and their ability to get the job done. They do not doubt their cause or determination to win. They don’t run looking backwards, but push forward relentlessly believing that every mile they cover gets them closer to the finish line and to victory. Distance runners are self-disciplined, persistent, patient and dedicated. When they lose an event or do not perform as well as they thought they could have, they don’t sit around and mope and wear a long face. They look at their performance, determine the reasons for their deficiencies, identify the things they could have done better and differently, correct their mistakes and prepare for the next race. No excuses, no blaming others, no grudges, no bull!

The prize of democracy, freedom and human rights cannot be won in a sprint, spring, hurdle or relay. It can be won only after a grueling, painful and challenging distance race. It is a marathon race between those running for freedom and running away from oppression and those chasing the ones running away from oppression and towards freedom. The chasers have a leg up on the runaways and will do all they can to trip them up, halt and reel them in. But the fugitives from tyranny must keep on running. They win by outrunning their cruel pursuers. That is why the struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights is not for the sprinters but for the distance runners.

Each One of Us Must be a Distance Runner in the Race for Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights

The distance race for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia will be won by one individual at a time running alone and collectively with others across the rugged and jagged landscape of ethnicity, religion, language and region. But every Ethiopian must win the race first and foremost in his/her mind and heart. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We must first win the distance race against our own prejudices, hatred, intolerance, ignorance and arrogance. With a clear heart and open mind, we will have the vision, persistence, tenacity and courage to win the gold in the “Olympic Marathon” for freedom, democracy and human rights. When we multiply our individual efforts 80 or 90 million times, we can transform Ethiopia from the land of 21 years of dictatorship and oppression to a land of 13 months of sunshine.

Let there be no mistake about prize at the end of the long and arduous distance race. When we win the race, we would have won a society where there rule of law reigns supreme, human rights are respected, abuser of power are held accountable, government governs with the consent of the people, government functions with utmost transparency, government is afraid of the people and the people are not afraid of their government and the people freely exercise their right to live with dignity and without fear, loathing and government persecution. It will be the race of our lifetimes. It may take generations to finish the race and win gold. We may have to create a “marathon relay” where each generation does its level best to struggle and win its leg of the race and pass the baton to the next generation. But to win this formidable distance race, we must have confidence, that is, robust self-confidence, full confidence in each other, absolute confidence in the younger generation and infinite confidence in the future.

Like the Olympic and World Championship distance runners, the distance runners for democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia will feel tired and beat and even despair from time to time for the prize seems so distant and victory unattainable. Their heads might ache, their muscles and bones tired and pained and their spirits broken by a ruthless and savage dictatorship. They might feel like calling it quits because they cannot carry on to the finish line. They may lose heart because the distance is too long, the road too hard, the finish line out of range and the prize out of reach. But the distance runners for democracy, freedom and human rights must think and do what our champions have done time and again. We have to have to develop the mental fortitude to say, “I can do it! We can do it! Not completing the race and not winning are not options. We can outrun, outturn, outleap, outpace, outmaneuver, outperform and outlast those who are chasing us!” That is what it takes to win the “Olympic Marathon” for democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia.

Our champion distance runners do not give in when they see a big hill or a winding road. They do not abandon their course because it is hot, cold, windy or raining. They do not give in or give up because the competition has more money, better resources or facilities. The never, never give in or give up no matter what. In the distance run for democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia, we too must “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

“I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism.” Abebe Bikila.

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