A chance to show off another side of Ethiopia

November 28th, 2011 | by addis portal |

ATHLETICS/GREAT ETHIOPIAN RUN: OVER THE course of its remarkable 11-year history, the organisers of the Great Ethiopian Run have experimented with various ways of starting the race. To judge by the slightly chaotic scenes on Meskel Square in Addis Ababa yesterday, though, there’s still a little bit of work left for them to do.

From early morning the crowds had begun to descend from every direction on the city centre.

By nine, there were 36,000 people good-naturedly milling around, stretching almost as far as the eye could see down the main roads that feed the huge square and around corners, big buildings and into the side streets.

There was no hooter, gun, or horn to mark the off, however.

Without warning, the police, who formed a human chain to prevent a false start, broke and ran for cover. The sense of joyous mayhem that ensued as the participants swept forward in their distinctive red and purple T-shirts is one reason why Africa’s largest road race is also its most special.

Another is the endearing personality of its public face, Haile Gebrselassie. As the elite runners came home, the twice Olympic champion was there to greet them with his trademark smile and an embrace. Then he did a spot of lifting, helping to move barriers so as to direct the less serious runners behind to a much larger finishing area. For the next hour or so he floated about performing his many and varied official functions and then he was back, standing a couple of metres short of the line off to one side where his presence had a powerfully magnetic effect.

Hundreds of local runners veered towards him and for a few moments almost nobody finished.

He had, the stewards quickly realised, to be quietly whisked away; not so much for his own sake, but for the sake of those who were about to form Africa’s biggest race-related pile-up.

Lost somewhere in the multitude, meanwhile, was Ireland’s John Treacy, the chief executive of the Irish Sports Council who was one of nearly 20 people in town to run the event with Concern. He was also one of more than a hundred who had travelled from Ireland especially for it, mainly so as fundraisers for organisations that do work in Ethiopia like Orbis, who brought more than 70 this year, and Self Help Africa.

“It was great fun, it’s a really great event,” said Treacy after finishing the event for the second year. “You wouldn’t be looking to do a time out there, because it’s a complete free for all, but we enjoyed all of the music and joking and craic on the road. We enjoyed it immensely.

“I got four or five of us up to what we thought was the front line and we were all delighted but after we set off we’d only got about 200 yards when we ran into another block of people. There were thousands of them. The first mile took about 10 minutes,” he said breaking into a laugh, “the second mile took about 10 minutes, then it finally began to open up a little.

“What’s more important, though,” he continued, “is that while we’re sometimes blinded by our situation at home, when you come here you start to see things a little differently. You walk the streets here and you know that a lot of people are living from each morning to that evening, it’s a subsistence existence. It’s good that the people who raise the money, who come here to run, get to see that that money is going to good projects, but that they also get to see during this race that the Ethiopians are a happy people.”

The country’s political system may have its flaws, but Ethiopia’s economic growth is amongst the fastest in the world at present and Gebrselassie believes the race can help to change what he reckons to be outdated stereotypes about his homeland. “When people abroad think of Ethiopia,” he says, “too often they think of starving people and war. It’s a bad image.

“What we are trying to do is to show that there is a better side to the country, that there is more to our people than they think.”

As they filed past the finish-line the Irish seemed convinced with just about everyone insisting the experience had exceeded their expectations. “It was fantastic,” said Jonathan O’Connor from Cabinteely in Dublin, who was running for Orbis Ireland. “You’d have to be struck by the people and their wonderful country.”

The only blot on the occasion, in fact, came afterwards when many local participants, whose €3 entrance fee is supposed to get them the race T-shirt up front and a medal after the finish, found that the latter had run out.

There was more chaos and this time it was less good-natured with the police standing their ground and, in some cases, using their batons to discourage the most determined of the memento seekers.

Next year, the organisers say, there will be more runners, almost certainly there will be more Irish and, whatever about a starter’s pistol, hopefully there will be more medals too.

Emmet Malone’s trip to the Great Ethiopian Run was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. 

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