I was cycling indoors at home recently while watching a tape of the just completed LA Marathon. Like the movie Groundhog Day, Ethiopians moved to the front of the both the men’s and women’s races. Ethiopia’s Bizunesh Deba, looking freakishly fresh, sat on American rookie Amy Hastings for the first 18+ miles at which point she slowly put 150-200 meters into her for victory in 2:26:34. Deba, 23, has won seven of the nine marathons she’s entered. Someone is mismanaging her, but I digress.
In the men’s race 26 year-old Ethiopian marathon rookie Markos Geneti ran a 1:02+ half and blew away the field coasting home in a course record 2:06:35. He’s a preeminent short and middle distance runner, but the marathon is where the money is in track and field these days. From now on, he’ll get six figures to show up at races.
The LA Times reported that Geneti plans to invest his $125,000 in earnings in a school in Addis Adaba (correct spelling, “Ababa”).
I was intrigued by Amy Hastings grittiness and guts. When she fell off Deba she crawled back into touch, fell off again, and got back in touch, before fading right before the finish. It was an incredible debut. Afterwards, I read an interview with her from before the race that included this question: One of the appeals of elite-level running is that the people, by and large, are smart, nice, insightful, introspective, all those good things. In addition to the fact that you obviously love the sensation of running, I would think that the kind of people that you meet in running, the kind of people you’ve been teammates with, the kind of people you’re rivals with, have been a big part of the appeal, isn’t it?
This got me thinking about what else we may be able to generalize about elite marathoners. To the interviewers list I’ll add: self confidence, intense competitiveness, extraordinary self-discipline, resilience, optimism, and off the charts toughness.
If I were to write about every elite Ethiopian runner, you’d have to set aside the next hour. It’s Kenya, Ethiopia, then all the other countries of the world combined. I like Geneti and Deba in London (assuming Deba starts spreading out her races better).
And when I taught at a private international school in Addis Ababa, my best students were Ethiopian public school students who won scholarships to our school and went to Harvard and other elite universities after graduating. These athletes and these students accomplishments beg the question, how does a country with Geneti and Deba and Nebiyeleul Tilahoun type of human resources continue to struggle to meet people’s basic needs?
The short answer is poor governance. No doubt Meles Zenawi celebrates “his” runners accomplishments and uses them to bolster his own image among his people. Here’s his story.
I hope Ethiopia’s runners, young students, and other citizens find inspiration from the Middle Eastern protestors to help close the Great Rift Valley that exists between their impressive human potential and bitter day-to-day realities. And I hope upon hope that Meles Zenawi is living in exile when Geneti and Deba walk into the opening ceremonies in London in the summer of 2012. Assuming, that is, they make the team.