Feature05 Aug 2012

Gelana keeps it in the family


Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the Women's Marathon at The Mall on Day 9 of the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 5, 2012 (© Getty Images)

Tiki Gelana was not sure at first that she could keep it in the family.

That’s not just the extended Ethiopian family, of whom she became on Sunday afternoon the winner of the sixth Olympic marathon gold for her nation, since the immortal Abebe Bikila in 1960; nor yet her 'local’ family in the celebrated town of Bekoji in Arsi, Oromia region, whence hail a plethora of other champions such as Derartu Tulu, Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba and her sisters, and Fatuma Roba, the first Ethiopian female marathon winner, in Atlanta '96.

But further, Gelana is the cousin of the 2000 Olympic marathon champion Gezahegne Abera.

A discriminating gambler, taking in all that 'local’ knowledge, would have been entitled to put a bundle on Gelana winning a rainswept Olympic women’s marathon through the centre of London 2012. Gelana herself was not so sure.

The torrential rainstorms caused lots of problems, not least for Gelana, who fell at one point, but obviously picked herself up so quickly that most onlookers were unaware of the mishap. But she held up her grazed and plastered elbow at the press conference, as proof and indicated that her knee was equally skinned.

"I was trying to take a water bottle," she explained through an interpreter. "I don’t know who touched me, but it caused me to fall." Even she couldn’t recall at what point in the race that occurred, but it left an impression. "I was so cautious and careful after that, because I felt that if I fell again, I might not finish."

The negative split – the second half of the race run almost three minutes faster than the first – was, she explained, "because I was running at my opponents’ pace at first. I didn’t expect to win at that point, and the rain did not help. At 21km, I knew I would finish, and then closer to the finish, I realised I could win.

"With 3km to go, I decided to go for it. My rivals gave me just the boost I needed. At the end it was a dream come true for an Ethiopian."

Justifiably, for it continued a tradition begun by Bikila in Rome 1960, repeated by him in Tokyo 1964, immediately followed by Mamo Wolde in Mexico 1968. Roba won Ethiopia’s first female gold in Atlanta 1996, before Gelana's cousin Abera took gold in Sydney 2000.

Gelana’s victory is the best possible publicity for the recently released film Town of Runners because the town in question is Bekoji, Gelana’s birthplace, and home to generations of Ethiopian champions who, like her, were introduced to running by veteran local coach Sentayehu Eshetu.

Gelana was one of those youngsters. She began running at school, encouraged, she said, by cousin Abera. "He helped me a lot. I was also encouraged by Fatuma. I’m really looking forward to meeting her. But everyone runs in Bekoji (including her parents and siblings). Running is a lifestyle."

Tiki is her given name, by which she is known in her home country, while Gelana is her father's name, just as Kenenisa takes his father's given name Bekele for international recognition. The grandfather's name would normally also be appended.

Like many young Ethiopian and Kenyan runners nowadays, Gelana went straight to the marathon. But when bronze medallist Tatyana Petrova of Russia said she felt she’d improved her marathon by going to the track (steeplechase), to give her some speed, Gelana was asked if she might follow the same path.

"It’s very unlikely I will go to the track. There are just too many brilliant runners. I love the marathon, that’s why I run it."

An Olympic record in difficult circumstances was more than proof of that.

Pat Butcher for the IAAF

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