Ethiopia’s Haile ‘the little Emperor’ Gebrselassie, and Kenenisa Bekele have stripped the Kenyans of everything including in 2004 their title of cross country kings after an 18 year reign. Ethiopia and Kenya will resume their big rivalry in athletics as runners from both nations will be fighting to be the pride of East Africa
BEIJING (AFP) — Sports is filled with bitter country rivalries which add extra spice - such as India and Pakistan, Brazil and Argentina - and in athletics it is Ethiopia and Kenya fighting to be the pride of East Africa.
In Beijing, the two will clash at an Olympics for the umpteenth time in the search to be the premier middle-to-long distance racing country, and while just one athlete can ascend the top of the podium there is far more at stake than solo glory.
Ethiopia started the drift towards African nations taking over distance racing - save the extraordinary Finn Lasse Viren in the 70’s - when a shoeless Abebe Bikila won the 1960 marathon gold in Rome.
He went on to win a second one in 1964 after recovering from appendicitis.
“I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism,” explained Bikila about why he had not worn shoes.
This was the typical attitude of the Ethiopians who come from a more disciplined and regimented regime than the Kenyans, who straddle the other side of the Rift Valley and have more or less lived under a democracy.
An Olympic medal these days increases an athlete’s value immeasurably on the international circuit - they can earn up to a million dollars a year - whereas when Kenya dominated in the 1970s through the likes of Kip Keino and Henry Rono, it really was the glory that they ran for.
For Ethiopia, led by Haile ‘the little Emperor’ Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, their re-emergence as the dominant force in distance races, where they have stripped the Kenyans of everything including in 2004 their title of cross country kings after an 18 year reign, has been timely financially.
Richard Nerurkar, former leading British marathon runner and who has worked extensively in Kenya and then Ethiopia, says the Ethiopian athletes are more driven these days than their Kenyan counterparts for a simple social reason.
“In Ethiopia athletics is the main sport apart from football,” he told the Guardian newspaper.
“Very little happens there. Kenya is a much more advanced society where there are many more things to do.”
The Ethiopians - whose women led by Tirunesh Dibaba should once again stamp all over their Kenyan rivals - are also better looked after than their East African rivals, as former Kenyan 10,000 metres and marathon great Paul Tergat revealed a few years ago.
It may also explain why over the past 12 years the Ethiopians have looked that much more motivated.
“Runners in Ethiopia are appreciated more,” Tergat told the Guardian.
“The government gives them free plots of land to build houses on. In Kenya runners are treated like commodities, though, things are getting better.”
Things would get immeasurably better should they somehow manage to wrest away the title of the best East African distance running nation at these Olympics, but the odds are heavily stacked against them.