The words 'perfect selection' and Ethiopian
Athletics Federation (EAF) have often not appeared
together in the same sentence. But when it came down
to picking a hotel for the talented squad preparing
for the 12th IAAF World Championships in Berlin,
Germany, the athletics governing body in Ethiopia
seems to have gotten it right, at last.
Set on the outskirts of Addis Abeba, the Beshale
Hotel provides the perfect escape for athletes from
the hassles of daily life in the capital's busy
streets. They concentrate on their training and
using their downtime for rest and recuperation. A
few metres from a serene cathedral, the environment
around the team is peaceful yet jovial as teammates
easily mingle with each other and members of the
coaching staff. They laugh at each other's comments
and pull pranks on each other to pass the time in
between their two daily training sessions.
"We are working more transparently as a federation,"
says team leader Amanuel Abraham. "We are willing to
respond to any complaints and disputes properly and
make sure that Ethiopia sends the best team to
Berlin and the environment around the squad is calm
and very friendly."
Gun Battle for a Team Place?
It is a world of difference from the corresponding
time last year in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics
when the team camped at the Ghion, in downtown Addis
Abeba. Then, marathon runners, Dire Tune and
Bezunesh Bekele, fought in the team bus after an
argument about who deserved to line up over the
women's marathon in Beijing.
"We were in the team bus returning from training
when the others [Bezunesh, Gete Wami, and Berhane
Adere] started talking about how I did not deserve
to compete in Beijing," Dire recalls. "Bezunesh [Bekele]
started to confront me and we started fighting on
the bus. At the end, other people came over and
But two days later, after team officials picked Dire
instead of Bezunesh, her husband (Tessema Abshiro)
pointed a gun at Deriba Merga, who is a training
partner and friend of Dire's, with what eye
witnesses thought was an intent to kill. Tessema
reportedly ignored pleas from teammates to move his
weapon away before police arrived on the scene. He
was subsequently detained and released after
spending the night in custody when Deriba decided
against pressing charges.
"The whole situation was really bad," Dire painfully
recalls. "It disturbed the team morale and affected
our results very badly in Beijing. I finished 15th,
but I missed almost a week of crucial training due
to the problems."
A year later, Dire and Bezunesh again find
themselves on the same team preparing for the world
championships, although they no longer see
themselves as foes.
"I have made peace with Bezunesh," explains Dire.
"It is all in the past now and we have decided to
look forward to the future."
The duo trains together under the stewardship of
coaches Zelalem Desta, Abebe Mekonnen, and Melaku
Deressa. Their reconciliation has come as a relief
for their teammates and coaches.
"Before we started training, we got them together
and decided to end everything," says Zelalem. "The
environment around the team is great. The athletes
are feeling really great and of course, we are happy
about the situation."
Unlike previous years, there have not been any major
selection controversies involving the team this
"We had a situation with the women's steeplechase
team," explains 3,000m steeplechase head coach,
Yohannes Mohammed. "We decided to pick youngster
Korahubish [Itaa] over Mekdes Bekele because we felt
she was progressing well among the youths. Mekdes
was unhappy, but we think we have resolved the
In an unprecedented move, coaches who have made
alterations to the team based on external factors,
have gone public this year to justify why they
picked a certain athlete over another before the
suspicious Ethiopian media dissected their picks.
This move was particularly important for the men's
"We wanted to select Bezu Worku, but he is not
eligible according to IAAF rules because he is
underage," Dube Jillo, EAF technical director,
explained about his decision to leave the 2:06
marathoner out of the team. "We tried everything in
the books to get an exception, but the rules are the
rules. We cannot change them."
Officials have also made changes to other vital
components of the team's facilities, including
switching the team hotel to a location in the
outskirts of Addis Abeba and made sure that athletes
would not suffer frequent food poisoning as in
"We have had lots of food poisoning incidents and
common cold problems in the previous years," admits
team doctor, Ayalew Tilahun. "This year, we had just
one or two problems which were not too serious."
While 5,000m runner Ali Abdosh quickly recovered and
returned to training, marathon runner Teyiba
Erkesso's case was serious enough to see her
withdraw from the team two weeks before the event
took place in Berlin. She was swiftly replaced by
Robe Guta, but despite a very public outburst
against coaches who she claims did not sufficiently
wait for her to recover; all proper procedures were
followed in her replacement.
Ethiopian athletics' selection problems usually
arise from the country's complex use of
international meets to select its squad for major
"We know other countries use selection trials, but
we use our own system because we want to evaluate
athletes throughout the competition season," says
Dube Jillo. "That way, we know who is in shape and
who is not. We use mainly the times from these
In the 500m, the 10,000m and the marathon, many
Ethiopians would fulfil the IAAF qualification
standards for the competition and run some of the
fastest times in the world over the qualification
period. Under EAF rules, the three fastest runners
(five for the marathon) would be picked to represent
the nation in major championships. But in many
cases, selectors also check the athlete's shape in
training and assess other factors such health and
fitness before announcing their final picks.
However, missing the cut could mean the nail on the
coffin of an athlete's career both in terms of the
financial rewards and satisfaction.
"An athlete who runs well at the world championships
is set for life," says Gerard Herens, a freelance
with BBC Afrique. "Haile Gebrselassie is a shining
example of what an Ethiopian can achieve by winning
world and Olympic titles. He has not only built up a
career for himself, but also created job
opportunities for his fellow Ethiopians."
The prize money for winning gold at the world
championships may be only 60,000 dollars, but
athletes who generally perform well also enjoy a
"In many cases, they are snapped up by managers and
earn money by running in lucrative one-day athletics
meetings for huge appearance monies," adds Herens.
"The top athletes also earn endorsements from shoe
According to the authoritative sports finance
magazine Sports Business, top- performing African
runners can expect to earn from half a million to
one million dollars from shoe endorsements. Athletes
like double Olympic 10,000m champion, Kenenisa
Bekele and running legend, Haile Gebrselassie, often
commend six-digit appearance fees in big-money
"This system [of using times and current form to
select the squad] is unfair and destroys the spirit
in the squad," says a leading athletics agent who
spoke on condition of anonymity. "The athletes
travel around the world to earn qualification times
but then they are often told they cannot compete in
major championships because they are not in good
training shape. The coaches often forget that some
athletes do not perform in training, while others
finish their energy in training in order to impress
Apart from the drama before Beijing, the sport was
riddled with many controversial selection squabbles.
In 2004, selectors famously dropped the then world
10,000m champion Brehane Adere from their Olympic
10,000m team because she did not train with the team
and respect team discipline.
Brehane did not go quietly; she caused a storm by
blaming the Federation for its selection procedures
and its coach, Woldemeskel Kostre (MD) for his bias
"It was the worst time of my life and whatever
happens, I will never forget it," she said two years
later. "I usually prefer to train alone, when I
train with others I do not exert as much effort. But
no one was willing to listen to me at the time. I
was denied my Olympic dream."
Brehane's no-show also came at a major cost for the
then African 10,000m record holder.
"I lost a lot of bonus money I would have earned
from Nike for winning in the Olympics," she said. "I
still feel the pain today."
Right Decision, Wrong Announcement
On other occasions, selectors have got their picks
spot on, but were blamed for their "inappropriate"
ways of breaking the news to athletes who did not
make the cut. Four years ago in Helsinki, selectors
picked both Ejegayehou Dibaba and her sister
Tirunesh to double at the world championships.
Unfortunately, they waited until a day before the
heats of the women's 5,000m to inform Sentayehu
Ejigu of their decision.
Disillusioned and visibly unhappy about being told
of her dismissal in the last training session before
the competition, Sentayehu ran to one of the toilets
inside the athletes' village crying and screaming to
the heavens, and attracting obvious attention from
others in the 20,000sqm facility. After locking
herself in the toilet for around 20-minutes, she was
kindly persuaded by fellow athletes to give up what
many in the team had feared was an apparent suicide
Four days later, the Ethiopian quartet of Tirunesh,
Meseret Defar, Ejegayehou, and Meselech Melkamu
created history by taking the first four places in
the women's 5,000m final, thus vindicating the
coaches' decision. Sentaheyu's days of misery were
never made public. Four years on, she refuses to
discuss the situation in detail.
"It is all in the past," she said. "I do not want to
talk about it."
This year, Sentayehu and her teammates show none of
the remorse that accompanied their selection woes in
the previous year. In fact, athletes who have never
believed they could figure in the medal bracket are
predicting that this could be their year.
"Everything has gone well for me and I believe that
winning a medal will not be too much to hope," said
middle distance runner Gelete Burka. "I have been
given more freedom with my programme this year. I
expect everything big in Berlin."
And previously-feuding Dire and Bizunesh are also
very optimistic about their chances. "I think it
will be one, two, and three for Ethiopia this year
[in the women's marathon]," she said thrashing the
long-held belief that Ethiopian athletes never give
out anything about their selection prospects.
The team's coaches are more cautious about the
"We are facing athletes from around the world and we
cannot say anything about what we will achieve,"
said Woldemeskel, the team's head coach. "The team
has prepared well this year and we hope for good
More importantly, the head coach and the EAF hope
that the country's history of selection squabbles
has finally come to an end.