Ethiopia Tries to Capitalize on Its Running Fame

February 27, 2013

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — On a warm Sunday morning in late November, about 36,000 people set off on the Great Ethiopian Run, a 10-kilometer race across the center of Addis Ababa. Diplomats, students, merchants, Orthodox priests, homeless children and professional runners were among the participants. It is one of Africa’s largest road races, hosted in the capital of a passionate running nation that has dominated long-distance competitions for the past two decades.

Haile Gebrselassie, one of Ethiopia’s most successful runners and businessmen, founded the race 12 years ago. He wanted to bring a big race to his home country.

Though finishing times are world-class, Gebrselassie’s goal of making the race an attraction has been somehow elusive. Top foreign athletes have stayed away, making the race an Ethiopian affair.

So while Ethiopia is a paradise for runners with its combination of high altitude, breathtaking tracks and mild climate throughout most of the year, there is no major international running event in the country. But things might change soon. The first Haile Gebrselassie Marathon is scheduled for October. It will be held in Hawassa, a city in southern Ethiopia, and could be more attractive to top foreign athletes. At an elevation of 5,600 feet, Hawassa is lower than Addis Ababa, and first prize is 12 ounces of gold, worth about $19,000.

Foreign athletes have long used Ethiopia’s high altitude to prepare for competition, but Ethiopia has started to capitalize on it only recently. In 2011, Joseph Kibur, a businessman with a short career as a runner, joined three others, including Gebrselassie, to open Yaya Village, a training center outside Addis Ababa. The center has a sauna, a gym and luxurious rooms, and it is just a 30-minute run from Mount Entoto, which is popular among runners.

Kibur said the center targets sports tourists as well as local and international runners. In mid-December, top athletes from Djibouti, Qatar and Britain visited, as did the London Olympics champion in the 1,500 meters, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria.

“They want to know what’s the secret,” Kibur said. “I mean, we have high altitude, but so does Mexico and other countries, but they don’t succeed the same level. So, obviously there is something different about Ethiopians that makes them unique and successful.”

Yaya Village is not the only training center in Ethiopia. A new sports resort owned by Kenenisa Bekele, the Beijing Olympics champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the current world-record holder in both events, is only half a mile away.

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