Oxford cross-country stars’ Ethiopian adventure

Sport

With a distance running pedigree rivalled only by East African neighbours Kenya, there is no better place than Ethiopia to source some pre-season advice, training and inspiration before the cross country running scene springs into action for another year. Combining this with the chance to work with two brilliant charitable organisations was therefore an opportunity that two OUCCC members found impossible to refuse.

We spent three weeks of our summer vacation in the homeland of Haile Gebrselassie: teaching, training and experiencing the influence that athletics exerts on the country.

Our first two weeks were spent with the Yaya Girls Running Program, located at the Yaya Athletics Village, 10 kilometres outside of Addis Ababa and, at 2700 metres above sea level, an international high-altitude training facility that already counts Team GB’s Julia Bleasdale amongst its growing clientele.

‘Yaya Girls’ brings together a small group of carefully selected young athletes, many of whom have already fallen out of the schooling system in pursuit of the athletics dream. Some of the girlsstruggle to read and write even in their native tongue. Here, they are not only given the best possible chance to turn their running talents into competitive success, but also provided with education, pastoral guidance and vocational skills training in order to broaden their mindset beyond the ideals of the sport and break the overwhelming mentality that running is the only career path they can aim for.

Our role was officially teaching English. However, as the project is still in its opening stages, we ended up helping out wherever we could. Highlights included insulating and decorating the corrugated steel kitchen (which, during the wet season at 2700 metres, was freezing), teaching physiology (starting with a rendition of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’!) and spending hours in the gym teaching as many core stability exercises as we could remember.

Just how important running is to the nation, and to the girls, was revealed watched Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar battle it out in the last Diamond League 5000 metres of the season. The girls were resolute Defar fans and, as she edged past Dibaba in the final straight, they erupted with celebration. Never before have we seen so much excitement at the outcome of a track event!

Our third week was spent in the small town of Bekoji, 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa. The town was made famous in 2011 by the documentary ‘Town of Runners’. Bekoji boasts eight Olympic Champions, ten World Record Holders and 32 World Champions including Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele.

Having seen the documentary and OUCCC having supported its partner charity Running Across Borders (RAB) for several years through the club’s annual Teddy Hall Relays, it was fantastic to see the positive impact that both the charity and the worldwide recognition generated by this film had brought to the region.

RAB support 6 athletes, 4 coaches to develop training in the town and employ a manager and guide, Biruk, to run the project on site and facilitate visitors who have been inspired by the film to experience the Town of Runners for themselves. The film has also funded six computers for the local library and a motorbike for the inspirational Coach Sentayhu.

‘Coach’, as he is known, is an exceptionally modest and welcoming man and has been training runners in Bekoji for more years than he would wish to admit to. We were lucky to be able to take part in a couple of his training sessions. Turning up at 6.30am along with over 150 members of the local community showed the title of the film was apt!

Higher participation and an inspirational coach, ultimately leads to the identification of a greater number of emerging talents. This, coupled with perfect running conditions; lengthy forest trails, optimum altitude and fertile land, has led the town producing one successful athlete to another. So it may appear to have been the birthplace of a disproportionate number of champions but it is also home to a disproportionate number of runners!

Reflecting on our time in the country, one of the big things we have gained from this trip is a newfound appreciation for amateur running. In Ethiopia, this concept is completely alien. One of the hardest things for the staff and volunteers on the Yaya Girls Program is to persuade the young athletes that they must be open to considering other careers whilst still taking pleasure from running alongside. It was clear from the short time we were there that at least two of the four girls currently on the project, while talented, are unlikely to make it professionally, but currently it is hard to motivate them to do anything else.

If this attitude could change, it would make many lives easier and running in Ethiopia much more enjoyable for many more people.

To learn more about the Yaya Girls project: visit yayagirls.wordpress.com.

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