How aspiring young runners in Ethiopia find a way to progress beyond school-age competition by joining 'projects', a stepping-stone to the club network.
By Hannah Borenstein
Photography by Guillaume Laurent
In central Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, nestled between the neighborhoods of Siddist Kilo and Kebena, lies Jan Meda – an open vast field that functions as a home to a range of national significant events. The meadow is home to military demonstrations, religious festivals, national celebrations, and the famous Ethiopian Cross Country Championships. On a daily basis, however, Jan Meda is an open and accessible space where amateur runners congregate to train.
Soccer pitches comprise much of the infield, with intense recreational matches staged on the weekends. On the eastern side of the meadow are stables, and horses will mostly mull about until they are taken out for some exercise. Ethiopia actually has a rich tradition of horse racing – a great deal of which has taken place in Jan Meda – but has more recently been focused on its wide array of runners who develop critical skills on these grounds.
In the summers of 2017 and 2018 I would go to Jan Meda most mornings to run with a diverse group of young athletes who train together in a “project.” Projects in Ethiopia are different from Clubs, which usually offer housing, food, running shoes and clothes, transportation, and a base salary. Projects provide little, if any, material support. But they do deliver a collective and social sense of belonging to Ethiopia’s young and aspiring amateur athletes – what many refer to as morale. Despite the little quantifiable assistance projects provide, they can still be a vital springboard for many of the country’s top runners.
Several, but not all, of the top Ethiopians competing at the World Championships in Eugene got their starts in projects around the country. Olympic Champion in the 10,000m last year, Selemon Barega, began his running career in a project in the Gurage region. After winning a school competition, Selemon was not yet ready to join a club, and instead proved himself capable by winning a project competition and gaining selection to the National Team.
Selemon is part of a new cohort of athletes from the southern regions of Ethiopia that do not have as rich a storied history of running in Ethiopia. Many of Ethiopia’s most famous legends have come from Oromia, but that has been changing. “In our area, there was no one running,” Selemon explained. “People are not supporters of sport; their main aim was to push us to learn.” Muktar Edris, Telahun Bekele, Tadesse Worku, are some of the other top athletes from the South who will be vying for medals at this year’s World Championships in the distance events.
Even when Selemon was selected for a national team in 2016, his family was not convinced he was on the right path. His life changed dramatically in 2016 when he won the IAAF U20 World Championships in Poland. From there, he joined the Southern Police Club (of which he is still a member) and eventually earned a shoe contract.
Telahun Haile Bekele also got his start in a project in the Gurage region of Ethiopia. He trained for about two years in the project before representing his region, then eventually getting selected to join a club based in the South – Hagere Selam (literally meaning, “my peaceful country”). But it was the participation in the project that enabled him to get noticed at a youth competition, and lay the foundation for a changing career and life.
“To get to tomorrow, to reach a high place, means today you need to do small things,” Telahun says, about the need to develop grassroots training projects for Ethiopian runners. “For example, to construct one big house, you couldn’t just make it immediately. You need to start from the base. You have to make holes. After you do this you can build extra stairs.”
The Gurage people are known throughout Ethiopia as being a hard working bunch. In Addis, they are respected for being willing to toil in any job, with patience about it leading to economic and familial growth. The percentage of athletes from the South who got their starts in projects, and have since progressed forward, reflects these trends, too.
In 2021, current and past athletes from the South in Ethiopia, banded together to inaugurate a new road race – the Kerod race – in the Gurage region. In addition to Telahun Haile and Selemon Barega, 2019 World Champion Muktar Edris and famed marathon coach Tessema Abshero (of Yalemzerf Yehualaw and Ashete Bekere) teamed up with the goal of creating new opportunities to recruit and train young athletes. Tessema, too, got his start in a project in the South, and hopes to continue to inspire the next crop of runners from his country’s region to be the best.
“The athletes here have a lot of potential and power,” Telahun said, “But to grow the sport here we have to start from the base and support the younger athletes.”
Some athletes are strong enough to go directly from school to a club, where they begin getting paid, and often drop out of school. But in areas where there are fewer clubs to join, athletes are not quite ready, or if they need a fresh start elsewhere in the country, a project can be a vital way to keep the dream alive.
The members of the project I trained with, in Addis Ababa, were mostly young runners under the age of 18. Many had come from around the country to Addis Ababa to pursue running, either because they heard the capital city was where one ought to go to join a club, or because running in their home regions was not safe or accepted. Women in particular, often told me stories where members of their community or their parents chastised them for running, arguing that their time would be better spent in the home.
They would come to Addis Ababa, and to Jan Meda specifically, to meet as a group, and train with others. It was not infrequent that Kenenisa Bekele or the Dibaba sisters would, too, be training at Jan Meda. But more often than not, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, aspiring runners hoping to progress into a club, and eventually represent Ethiopia on the global stage, would be toiling away.
The downside of not yet being in a club, in addition to a salary, is access to training areas. Like Telahun and Selemon, project runners usually have little access to training facilities and areas beyond local grounds. In Jan Meda, the government began constructing a 400m track, but the project was never completed.
“There are no tracks for us to use,” a project member once told me, lamenting that the only tartan track available in Addis Ababa – the National Stadium – was reserved for the National team and top tier clubs. The few other tracks in the area – Kenenisa’s track in Sululta and the gravel track in Tafo – required either entry fees or transport fees most project runners could not yet afford. An uneven gravel oval in the middle of Jan Meda was the only option. Referencing the mountainous Entoto forests, the rolling asphalt in Sendafa, the flat concrete of Sebeta, among other famous training spots for Ethiopian runners, he said, “It’s very hard to do all of the appropriate training if you cannot go to all of the places where the best runners train.”