Great Ethiopian Run helps debunk myth that Africa can’t organise first class events

Runners pour onto the streets of Addis Ababa for last Sunday’s Great Ethiopian Run. The annual run is the biggest mass participation race in Africa.

Photo credit: Elias Makori | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Service to the community, besides nurturing of talent, is what makes this amazing Addis Ababa road race even more special.
  • Just as the “Seeing is believing” project by the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon or the environmental conservation drive adopted by the Eldoret City Marathon.
  • Sport is more than mere competition as it carries with it force for greater good.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it invaluable lessons for sport.

With virtually the entire 2020 global sports calendar wiped off, professional elite athletes were worst hit with little or no income at all from the just concluded season.

African athletes bore the brunt of multiple cancellations of professional competitions, and even the few salvaged events were limited to only a handful of competitors.

Travel restrictions imposed by some Schengen states through the European Union mean that, to date, it will be extremely difficult to fly into Europe at will for competitions or training.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learnt is the need to diversify and organise world class competitions within our African borders and offer athletes alternative platforms to earn a living, closer home.

For many years now, an African track and field circuit – a “ Diamond League” of sorts - has been the talk at the Confederation of African Athletics although nothing tangible has come out of this apparently stillborn proposal.

Africa needs more track and field competitions, road races and championships across the board in the various sports disciplines.

Last weekend’s Great Ethiopian Run is a great example of an African event that has grown over the years to benefit local athletes.

Runners pour onto the streets of Addis Ababa for last Sunday’s Great Ethiopian Run. The annual run is the biggest mass participation race in Africa.

Photo credit: Elias Makori | Nation Media Group

Started 20 years ago by distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie, the Great Ethiopian Run is now Africa’s largest mass participation race with about 50,000 runners registered each year, with last weekend’s scaled-down edition an exception owing to Covid-19 restrictions.

Still, the race managed to attract 12,500 runners, including 300 elites drawn from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya.

In Kenya, the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon has maintained its consistency while the latest kid on the block, the Eldoret City Marathon, has exceeded all expectations and is currently Kenya’s best-paying marathon.

With limited options abroad and the inconvenience of travel brought about by Covid-19 prevention rituals, our elite athletes might soon be forced to eat humble pie and compete locally to put bread on the table.

The remarkable difference between the Great Ethiopian Run and our Kenyan races is the fact that while Ethiopian elite athletes have over the years been competing on the roads of Addis Ababa each year, top Kenyan runners virtually run all their races abroad.

Race founder Gebrselassie himself ran at the Great Ethiopian Run, winning the inaugural edition in 2001 with superstars such as Tirunesh Dibaba, Tsegay Kebede, Gebregziabher Gebremariam, Deriba Merga, Netsanet Gudeta all having featured at this annual race at one time or another.

Since 2001, the Great Ethiopian Run has enjoyed sustained growth with winners’ prize money increasing from 10,000 Birr (about Sh28,000) to the current 100,000 Birr (Sh280,000), although Gebrselassie knows only too well that the purse needs to be bigger.

“The first challenge was to grow the number and now we have over 40,000 runners each year. The next thing of course is to work on increasing the prize money and appearance fees because if you want to attract the top runners from Kenya, Morocco, Europe, America and so on, the first thing they will ask is how much are you going to pay me!,” he explained to me at the weekend on the sidelines of the 20th edition of the annual Addis Ababa race.

The Great Ethiopian Run has set world class structures in its operations with an unbelievably lean, and efficient, team pivoting around the indefatigable Ermias Ayele (general manager), Dagmawit Amare (strategic and innovations manager), Dagim Teshome (events and operations manager) and Gebrselassie as patron.

The organisation’s entire office staff of just 14 counters the belief that organising mass participation events needs scores of people and huge overheads.

With threats from the coronavirus still looming large, it’s events like the Addis Ababa one that will offer reprieve to African athletes.

Now that Nairobi has secured a leg of the World Athletics Continental Tour (the Kip Keino Classic) and with the Eldoret City Marathon off to a flying start, Kenya needs more and more athletics events to sustain the endless talent the country oozes.

Besides providing these athletes platforms to eke out a decent living, such competitions also offer employment to sports management professionals.

To hold successful events, there’s need to recruit such professionals to operate on a full time basis so as not to compromise the quality of the competitions.

Often we see event organisers handling such assignments as “side hustles”, therefore failing to give them the solid attention they deserve.

That’s why the ruthless efficiency of the Great Ethiopian Run is a model we can borrow heavily from to build our Kenyan events.

Not only on the sporting side, but also in community development as Gebrselassie and his team usually benefit various community causes through race proceeds, including construction of schools and assisting vulnerable women and children across Ethiopia.

Service to the community, besides nurturing of talent, is what makes this amazing Addis Ababa road race even more special.

Just as the “Seeing is believing” project by the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon or the environmental conservation drive adopted by the Eldoret City Marathon.

Sport is more than mere competition as it carries with it force for greater good.

emakori@ke.nationmedia.com

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