July 08, 2007

Back to Bekele's roots in sleepy Bekoji

Back to Bekele's roots in sleepy Bekoji
Story by ELIAS MAKORI
Publication Date: 2007/07/07

After a tiring 280-kilometre drive south east of Addis Ababa, our party arrives in the famous town of Bekoji.
Famous because this sleepy town in the Arsi Province of the Oromiya region is home to most of Ethiopia’s famous world middle distance running greats.
Derartu Tulu and Fatuma Roba, Olympic medallists in the 10,000 metres respectively, multiple world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, double world champion Tirunesh Dibaba all hail from this province.
It is also the birth place of five times double world cross country champion Kenenisa Bekele.
Kenenisa’s sports teacher
We arrive at the Bekoji Elementary School, the alma mater of Kenenisa, Tirunesh and other great names and, after visiting several classes in session, we are introduced to Sentayehu Eshetu, Kenenisa’s first sports teacher.
Immediately, we delve into Kenenisa’s history. “What distinguished Kenenisa from the rest of the pupils,” I launched.
Sentayehu’s response: “He had the speed and completed his training schedules well ahead of the rest.
“We traditionally used to run up and down the hills and also do a lot of cross country running to gather stamina and Kenenisa used to excel in all these regimes.”
One date Ethiopians would like to forget in a hurry is March 24, 2007. It was the day Kenenisa failed in his bid for a sixth straight title in the long course at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa.
Most painful defeat
Kenenisa dropped out with just a few metres to go, handing victory to traditional rivals Eritrea whose Zersanay Tadesse gleefully cruised to the finish line to hand Ethiopia their most painful defeat in distance running.
“I did not know Mombasa was that hot,” Sentayehu braves his story. “I suffered a headache for a long time after that result...I was sick.”
But the coach still maintains that it will be difficult for Ethiopia and the world to see an athlete as great as Kenenisa.
“I don’t believe it will be easy to have another Kenenisa...even in Mombasa, Zersanay was always worried about being caught by Kenenisa during the race and if not for Kenenisa’s misfortune, Zersanay could not have come close to him.”
Sentayehu also talked about Tirunesh’s formative days as an athlete.
“Tirunesh was a member of our project and she trained three to four times each week also under distance running coach Yilma Berta who was at the time our technical director,” the coach explained at the school that currently has about 3,000 pupils from first to eighth grade paying, on average, a paltry 50 Ethiopian Birr (about Sh 700) per year as school fees.
After a short while at the school, we head about two kilometres out of town and are led to a busy construction site.
A well-furnished 20-room hotel is nearing completion and we learn that it is one of Kenenisa Bekele’s numerous real estate investments strewn all over the republic.
Next to the hotel is a freshly completed house that we learn has just been completed by the star athlete and is home to his parents, 82-year-old farmer Bekele Bayicha and housewife mother Kuli.
“You people always take my pictures but I never get the copies,” the humorous Bekele shoots at me in the local Oromiya dialect as I focus my camera on his big frame.
The couple have six children - four boys and two girls.
Immediately noticeable on one of the walls are numerous images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The striking thing is that in the midst of all these pictures is one of Kenenisa Bekele in action at the 2003 World Championships in Paris leading Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya’s John Korir, among others.
The set-up summed up the high esteem in which the family held their sporting hero. The living room has a seven-seater sofa set, dining table and a television set with pictures of Kenenisa and his younger brother Tariku gracing the other walls.
After the pleasantries I ask a question I’m sure many journalists have asked the old couple: Just what does Kenenisa Bekele mean to Ethiopia?
“We feel happy,” the old man replies through the interpreter, “he has made us famous, he has made Bekoji famous and he has made Ethiopia famous...if not for him, you wouldn’t have been here, for instance.” Fair point!
What about the Mombasa fiasco? “We were very disappointed,” the old man affords.
“We wondered why such a competition should be held under such hot conditions. “We even think it was a deliberate move to make sure that Kenenisa did not win! But, anyway, it was God’s will. It is God who knows everything.”
Initially, Kenenisa’s parents wanted him to complete his education and were not for his idea to take athletics seriously.
“I objected to his running but he said was standing in his way and insisted he wanted to go to Addis Ababa. Initially I made fun of it but when he went abroad and started winning races, I was embarrassed that I had tried to stop him in the first place.”
The old couple don’t disagree when it comes to competition between their two superstar sons Kenenisa and Tariku.
“Kenenisa is stronger,” their father argues. “Even after three years, Kenenisa will be much bigger and better.
“When they race against each other, I would always like to see Tariku finish just behind Kenenisa. At the moment, I don’t want Tariku to beat Kenenisa!”
Why?, I ask. “Just as there exists respect between the young and the old, we will always support the old,” the old man replies.
“The time will come one day for Tariku to take over.
“In the same way that Kenenisa was not supposed to beat Haile Gebrselassie, we do not want Tariku to beat Kenenisa,” argues Bekele who in 2005 travelled to Hengelo, the Netherlands, together with his wife to watch Kenenisa’s unsuccessful attempt at a 10,000 metres world record.
On the road back to Addis, I notice a matatu with a lion’s picture and an inscription reading: “Kenenisa Bekele is a Lion!.”
Indeed, the Ethiopian running sensation has a brave heart. It is no wonder that he was the subject of a hit song ‘Ambesa’ (meaning Lion in Amharic).
At just 22, his fiancé with whom they were planning to hold a wedding in April 2005, Alem Techale, a world junior champion in the 1,500m, died in his hands as the couple were training in the Ararat forest in the outskirts of Addis.
“I found her unable to run and struggling to stand, holding onto a tree,” Kenenisa said in an interview shortly after the devastating incident.
“I asked her what was wrong and she was in pain and asked me to pray for her.” Kenenisa rushed to his car but efforts to resuscitate him on the way to hospital failed and Alem, at just 18 years of age, died after what was believed to be heart failure.
Kenenisa was so devastated that he wanted to call off his bid for a fourth straight double at the world cross country championships in St Etienne/St Galmier, France.
Many thought this was the end of his fledgling career in athletics.
Immortal in athletics
The fact that he eventually competed and won the short and long course races exalted him to the levels of an immortal in athletics.
Even the recent debacle in Mombasa will not blemish Kenenisa’s great athletics career and he is still the hot favourite to win the long course race at next year’s 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships next year.
After setting a world junior record for the 3,000m in 2001, Bekele won his first world cross country title in 2002 Dublin, where he became the first man to win the long and short races at the same championships.
Bekele retained both titles in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 and was on course to being the first man to winning six straight titles this year in Mombasa when he was floored by Zersanay Tadesse.
At the 2003 World Championships in Paris, Bekele won the 10,000m and finished third in the 5,000m.
In the run-up to the Athens Olympics, over a 10-day period, Bekele shattered Haile Gebrselassie’s world records in the 10,000m and the 5,000m.
In Athens, Kenenisa won the gold in an Olympic record time before winning silver in the 1,500m a few days later.
Like Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa is managed by Dutchman Jos Hermens and trains with the Ethiopian national team in Addis Ababa. “During the track season, we also train in Europe because that’s where most competitions are,” Kenenisa adds
Recently, Kenenisa confessed to the Sunday Nation that he has not recovered yet from his Mombasa loss and was in bad shape.
However, in his only race of the new season so far, he ripped apart the opposition to win the 3,000m race in Hengelo a month ago, perhaps a wake-up call to his opponents telling them that he’s still around.
Businesswise, just like Gebrselassie, Kenenisa is in real estate business with housing and hotel interests managed by his company, Kenenisa Bekele Trading.
He owns buildings in Addis Ababa, Assela and Bekoji. However, he prefers to concentrate on athletics for the moment.
“I have enough people to run my businesses so that I concentrate on athletics. Even most of the time my associates don’t want to see me in the office. They want me to train.”

Nation Media

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