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Little Town of Champions

Posted: 05 Mar 2014 11:10
by selam sew
The village of Bekoji, in the highlands of Ethiopia, has produced long-distance runners who’ve won 16 Olympic medals in 20 years. What explains this remarkable success?

“Running is in my blood,” says Tolo Debele, feeding his 3-month-old boy Dawit in his gated compound in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “It’s changed everything in my life.”

The long-legged 32-year-old is wearing a pair of bright blue running shoes with shock absorbers on the heels, provided by his sponsor, Nike. A competitive marathon runner, he’s raced in Asia, Europe, and America. But his wife Askale Tafa has him beat: Their massive cabinet in the living room is packed with sparkling trophies, mostly hers. Fifth place, Boston; third place, Dubai; second place, Berlin.

Not long ago, Tolo and Askale were living a very different life: herding
cattle and farming in Bekoji, the pastoral, grain-producing town in central Ethiopia, several hours south of Addis, where they grew up.
They moved to the capital to join a large urban running club, but they’ve maintained their ties to Bekoji, capitalizing on their athletic success by opening a hotel back home.

Bekoji at daybreak (Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero)

And they’re not the only champions from their town of 17,000. Bekoji has produced seven Olympic medal-winning runners: Kenenisa Bekele and his younger brother Tariku Bekele, Derartu Tulu and her cousins Ejegayehu Dibaba and Tirunesh Dibaba, Fatuma Roba, and Tiki Gelana. Among them, Bekoji’s runners have won 16 total Olympic medals—10 of them gold—and more than 30 world championships. For some perspective: The runners from this tiny town have hauled in more gold medals than India (population: 1.2 billion) has won in all Summer Olympic categories put together, and nearly twice as many as Indonesia (population: 247 million) has. The Dibaba sisters alone have won as many medals as Syria (population: 22 million) and Saudi Arabia (population: 28 million) combined, and Tirunesh Dibaba has racked up as many golds as Pakistan (population: 179 million). Between 1995 and 2004, the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, who grew up in the nearby town of Asella, held the world record for the 10,000 meters for all but two years. Kenenisa Bekele broke Gebrselassie’s record 10 years ago, and he’s held it ever since.

This single-minded devotion is easy to see on the streets of Bekoji. Almost everyone in town—whatever his or her profession—wears running shoes, and people regularly gather in shops with TVs to watch major running events, especially when Ethiopians are competing. Tolo has a brother and sister who are runners, and his wife’s brother is one, too...Read More on ... ns/284143/