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A year after all-hell-broke-loose during the Ethiopian Olympic team's preparation for the Beijing Games, casualties and foes have kissed and made up. But will this be the end to Ethiopian athletics' history of selection squabbles? ELSHADAI NEGASH, SPECIAL TO FORTUNE, reports on a serene and calm build-up to Ethiopia's world championship campaign in Berlin.

Peace at Last?



The hotel for the Athletes Provides Tranquility for training


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 separated us."

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 year.

"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 situation."

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 marathon.

"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 previous years.

"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 championships.

"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 races."

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 lucrative career.

"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 companies." 

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 meetings.

"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 the coaches."

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 against her.

"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 attempt.

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 squad's prospects.

"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 results."

More importantly, the head coach and the EAF hope that the country's history of selection squabbles has finally come to an end. 






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