“I am exceeding my own expectations,” Tsegaye Kebede – By Elshadai Negash, IAAF
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia- What a difference a year can make!
Few observers who saw marathon runner Tsegaye Kebede enter the 2007 Abebe Bikila International Marathon in July last year as an unknown but emerge victorious in a new course record time would have thought that he would be carrying Ethiopia’s hopes for medals at the 29th Beijing Olympics. (more…)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia- What a difference a year can make!
Few observers who saw marathon runner Tsegaye Kebede enter the 2007 Abebe Bikila International Marathon in July last year as an unknown but emerge victorious in a new course record time would have thought that he would be carrying Ethiopia’s hopes for medals at the 29th Beijing Olympics.
But after a 2:06.40 performance en route to victory in the 2008 Paris International Marathon and several solid half marathon and 10km performances throughout the year, the 22-year old is now being touted as a genuine hope for medals in Beijing.
“I never thought that I could make the Olympic team this year,” he says. “I have always known that I am talented, but I did not expect to do well.”
Short career, outstanding success
Kebede’s rise to the top level has shocked the athletics community in Ethiopia. After all, he has only been training seriously for less than two years and competed internationally for less than a year.
Yet he currently has the second best progression for Ethiopian marathon runner in a single year which includes 2:15.34 (2007 Abebe Bikila Marathon), 2:08.16 (Rotterdam Marathon), and then 2:06.39 (Paris). He also has two sub 60-minute performances (59.00 at Ras Al Khamiah and 59.88 at the Zayed Half Marathon) over the half marathon and two 10km victories during this period.
“I am exceeding my own expectations,” he says. “I do not think training is the only reason for my improvement. But I have big confidence in myself and my abilities.”
Kebede has earned over USD 100,000 in prize money this year thanks to his focus on major city marathons and other lucrative road races. He lives a life on relative luxury, a far cry from the days where he says “I had nothing”.
“I know that many athletes say that they started from nothing, but to be honest, I do not think many of them were as poor as I was a few years ago,” says Kebede, who was the fifth child in a large family of thirteen children.
Life was a struggle for Kebede and his family who survived on the earnings of his father’s traditional carpeting work. Because the earnings were not enough to support the family, Kebede collected firewood near his town Gerar Ber, 42kms north of Addis Ababa, for sale in markets. Earnings from this work put him well under the WHO’s poverty barrier of 1USD per day.
“I made about ETB 2.50 (USD 0.30) a day,” he says. “I would buy bread and some tea and would have only one meal a day. After that, I had nothing left in my pocket. I had to wake up the following morning to go back to work in order to survive. If I didn’t, there would be no food.”
In order to survive, Kebede also got a side job as a herder in order to pay for his school and the rest of the family. It was in school that he started showing an interest in sport, but only started running in 1995 after watching kids from the neighbourhood training.
“I was not really serious about becoming an athlete,” he said. “I just run to stay fit and pass time.”
He took part in his first real race the following year finishing 20th in a regional cross country race only to incur the wrath of his angry father who thought his son was wasting his time.
“I never complained about our life and even ate whatever I get,” he recalls. “I did not even told my father that I had started training, but he found out somehow and was upset that I was wasting time.”
Despite the disapproval of his father, Kebede continued his training part-time and got his lucky break in the most unlikely of circumstances.
“In September 2006, I took part in a half marathon organized on the occasion of the world tourism day in Addis Ababa,” he recalls. “I only finished 21st in the race, but what happened at the end of the race changed my life.”
Although Kebede endured a forgettable time in the race, he caught the attention of Getaneh Tessema, marathon coach and agent. Tessema asked Kebede to come for a trial race with his training group in a few days. He shocked Tessema by finishing second in a 10km time trial only losing out to Deriba Merga, who would go on to win the Great Ethiopian Run 10km less than six weeks later.
Unlikely circumstances open door to international debut
Kebede progressed well enough under Tessema’s tutelage to convince his coach that he was ready to make his international debut. But a week before he was scheduled to race in Holland, he was denied a visa support letter by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) because he belonged to a pilot project not an established athletics club.
“I was upset but there was no choice,” he recalls. “Because I could not go, my coach put me in the Abebe Bikila Marathon.”
However, Kebede’s troubles were by no means over.
A week before race date, Kebede and team mates travelled to Entoto, a popular training venue for Ethiopian runners on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. On their way back, they ‘nearly died’.
“We took a bus on our way down and the driver could not control the brakes,” he painfully recalls. “He did not say a word to us because he was afraid we might panic in fear. He tried to control the car, but when he came up against a steep curve, it was over for us. The bus skidded off the main road and into the forests. We all screamed for help, but we were all crushed.”
While others sustained heavy injuries, Kebede was lucky to escape with just a small leg wound. Many of his team mates were ruled out of the marathon the following weekend, but Kebede got the all-clear to compete.
“I do not wish something like this to anyone,” he says. “All the time I was praying ‘God, I came to Addis to change the life of my family. Are you going to end my life here? Please save my life.’ My prayers were answered. I thought I would die for those few minutes, but I think I was given another life.”
Securing Olympic berth
Kebede did not waste his ‘new life’. He easily won the marathon prompting the EAF to give him the all clear to race overseas. He ran two successive 10km races, but his lucky break when he was entered in the Rotterdam Marathon.
“I was excited about running a full marathon outside Ethiopia,” he recalls of his experience. “In fact, I was so excited about being part of the leading group that I forgot to even look at the kilometre marks during the race.”
“When the top runners just took off at 35km, I felt that it was too early and just held back to conserve my energy. I knew something was wrong when I saw the stadium from a near distance. But at the finish, I was shocked to see 2:08 on the clock. I knew that no one apart from Haile [Gebrselassie] had run 2:08 in Ethiopia that year. I was so happy.”
With many more autumn and spring marathons coming up, Kebede knew that his 2:08.16 might not be enough for a place in the Ethiopian Olympic team.
“Many people did not know me in Ethiopia because I had not run for my country,” he said. “Even after the 2:08, only some coaches and people in athletics knew about me.”
He sealed his place in Ethiopia’s Olympic team in Paris propelling him from fourth to second place in the 2008 Ethiopian lists. Because Deriba Merga run two seconds faster in London the following week, Kebede dropped down a place to third during the Olympic qualification but returned back to second following Gebrselassie’s decision to skip the marathon in Beijing.
“I am living in a dream,” he says. “This is so big and so important for me. I did not obsess about it all my life, although I wanted to run for my country in the Olympics. I am just surprised that it has come early.”
Hopes for Beijing: Nothing but gold
Given his lack of experience in championship-styled marathon racing, one would expect Kebede to be cautious about his chances in Beijing.
But the youngster does not hold anything back when saying he is going for gold. “I am not experienced and it will be my first time running under our national colours,” he says. “But I am confident about my chances. I will be going for gold.”
Kebede’s marathon ambitions do not end there. “I have two big ambitions,” he says. “Apart from Haile, Ethiopia has not had many big marathon runners. I want to become a better marathon runner than I already am.”
How about popularity and the love his people?
“Every time I train at the Addis Ababa stadium, I look at the images of our Olympic champions on Olympic rings. There is a question mark [or a space open for future Olympic champions]. I want my photo instead of the question mark.”