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Untapped Potential–Female Athletes in Ethiopia

Untapped Potential–Female Athletes in Ethiopia

Almaz Ayana 10000 meters Olympic champion has continued her unbeaten run in major international competitions by clinching gold in London World Championship, last Saturday. The rise of Almaz and others before her has confirmed that female athletes are becoming an indomitable force in Ethiopian Athletics. Not far away from where most of these athletes have their first test of their track careers, a number of young aspiring athletes endure the pouring rain to conduct their daily training in hopes making it to the big stages one day, writes Lauren Wilson           

It is around seven in morning, the rain is pouring down on Meskal Square, the center of Addis Ababa and a popular venue among casual joggers and professional athletes in Ethiopia. At that particular Wednesday morning, what is usually a busy training location was rather an empty field (stairs to be exact). The occasional runner can be seen through the sheets of water falling from the sky, but other than that there was no one.

At a quarter past seven, several young athletes begin to gather, trying to stay dry under a few umbrellas. At half past seven, they begin to train. They all have different goals but many of them would relish the opportunity to represent their country at an International level.

Found among the many athletes, are a select few female athletes that, similar to their male counterparts, would like nothing more than to be successful in their discipline at the highest level possible.

Their muscles work the same as the boys. Running the stairs, their feet are agile, their calves and quads are strong, their hearts are beating and their lungs are working–the only difference is the societal role that may have held them back from fully committing themselves to a sport they love. 

16-year-old Meron Temesgen is an aspiring female runner who began running at the age of ten. Sponsored by Origin Water, Meron’s specialties include both the 800m and 1500m; and without the support of her family, she says that running would never have become a part of her everyday routine.

“Running is my whole life. It feels good to run,” said Meron. “My family and friends support me so much morally.”     

Ethiopia has a strong history in athletics, specifically in long distance running. Although as of late, Ethiopian athletes are also making names for themselves in other Athletics events such as short and mid distance running.

Some of the stars of Ethiopia’s athletic history include the world famous Abebe Bikila who won gold and set the World Record in marathon at the Rome Olympic in 1960 while running barefoot. Abebe repeated his phenomenal performance in Rome at the Tokyo Olympic four years later, becoming the first athlete to defend his title in an Olympic marathon event in two consecutive competitions. This feat was accomplished by one other Olympian to date— Waldemar Cierpinsk of the then East Germany. However, even Cierpinsk did not manage to break a world record while defending a title, which Abebe did in 1964 in Tokyo. He continued to have many more successes throughout his career in athletics.

Another famous Ethiopian runner is Haile Gebreselassie, who won gold in the Men’s 10,000meters at two Olympic Games and has many International Marathon wins behind him. These individuals are role models for many of the youth of Ethiopia still today.

While these two male Athletes are famous both in Ethiopia and around the world, the times are changing and looking at Ethiopian athletes now, there are more and more female role models for the girls in the country to look up to and aspire after.

During the time of Abebe and then Haile, there were more families that followed the gender specific traditional roles–where girls were found in the kitchen and the boys were found outside, where they could be active. These societal roles placed more pressure on girls to spend more time on household work and childcare.

According to the author of the 2009 “A History of Sport in Ethiopia”, Solomon Addis, regardless of the other literacy, employment and health statistics for women, participation in sports is slowly gaining traction.

“The country continues to see inspirational and motivating women athletes at the national and international levels who are becoming the driving force for making sport safe, accessible and affordable for future generations. Although the progress is slow and participation rates are lower than wanted, women in Ethiopia are indeed taking part in sports such as athletics, basketball, handball, volleyball, etc; and there are annual national competitions which are organized to scout future athletes that could represent the country in international competitions.”

But athletics figures like Derartu Tulu, currently in her mid-40s, also provide young athletes like Meron with the inspiration that they need to push through to the global stages. She hails from the famous Arsi Bekoji, hometown to the Haile, Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Debaba and others, and she first made her appearance in the international stages with gold medal in 10000 meters at the Barcelona Olympic in 1992. She became the first Ethiopia and black African women to win an Olympic gold medal.

After that, Derartu won a number of medals in track, cross country and road races across the world including gold in Edmonton World Championship in 2001. Perhaps the most inspiriting is Derartu’s spectacular return to the tracks in Sydney Olympic after she has given birth to her daughter two years earlier. Against all odds, she clinched gold in 10000 meters at Sydney Olympic in 2000, and she was the first women to win gold in two Olympic Games in the distance at the time.

Tirunesh Dibaba, who is also a double gold medalist in 10000 meters and gold medalist in both 10000 and 5000 meters in Beijing Olympic, is none other than Derartu’s niece.                        

Assefa Bekele, who works as the Association and Athlete Service Leader at the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), says times have drastically changed and female athletes are now being developed nationally at the projects around the country at the same rate as the males.

“We treat them both equally,” said Assefa. “But at the moment, we know that female athletes are getting good results. When you go around to the projects, the ratio is one to one (male to female).”

Simply by turning on the TV and paying attention to International Athletic Competitions, anyone can see that things have indeed progressed. What most recently highlights this potential change is the podium finishes of both Almaz Ayana and Tirunesh Dibaba in London at the 2017 IAAF World Championships.

Last Saturday, Almaz ran the Women’s 10,000m in a time of 30.16.32 earning herself and her country a gold medal. And in a tight race all the way to the finish, Tirunesh Dibaba completed the same race in a time of 31:02.69 and finished with a silver medal.  

Although this is far from the first time that Ethiopian women have been successful at an International level, it could be said that the country is undergoing a significant change specifically in the rural areas as access to social media and world broadcasts in the form of internet, TV, radio, etc. is becoming more accessible.

“There is a great change because people have access to television now. Because of this, runners come from the rural areas–it has become a culture. Everyone is watching athletics,” said Assefa.

According to him, potential female athletes used to be influenced by their families and the traditional male and female roles. But now, athletics is becoming “popular in the rural areas” as well as the urban, and there is almost no negative culture surrounding girls and sport.

When exactly half of the country’s population is female (50.09 per cent according to Trading Economic in 2015), it makes sense to focus half of the resources on developing the girls as well. It’s not special treatment, but simply the same treatment that they need, and presently, the female athletes in the country are beginning to see that. 

Ethiopian Athletic Federation Communication Officer, Silesh Bisrat, agrees that the traditional norms that used to separate males and females are gone from many homes across the country. However, in the case that they may still exist, the EAF is committed to breaking them, as female athletics is playing a significant role in the global community, he argues.

“The federation has shared its strategic plan with the Ministry of Youth and Sport to break the social norms of traditional gender roles in Ethiopia that in some cases still prevent women and girls from being successful in sport,” said Silesh.

To help break these historic societal norms, Silesh says that it helps when successful athletes go back to visit the towns they grew up in to show that success is possible no matter where you grow up–rural or urban, or your gender–male or female.

“Sometimes elite male and female athletes go to their birth places to be a role model to their home town kids.”

But for the change to stay, it is important to have Ethiopian girls like Meron, who have the full support of their families and because of that, have the ability to make waves in the sporting world.

“I believe that women are equal with men when it comes to sport,” said Meron. “We are doing everything equal with them so we are not going to be underestimated. We, as women, will not be seen like that.”

The progress of female athletics throughout Ethiopia could be seen as something transformative–a positive change and a chance for females all across the country to have access to the training and resources that will allow them to be successful in a sport that they love. Ethiopia is just beginning to bridge that gap, to fully discover the untapped potential of half of their country and now that they have started, there is no telling what successes they will find in the sporting world.

Ed.’s Note: Lauren Wilson is on an internship at The Reporter.