Feature21 Mar 2017

Resurgent Molla holds key to Ethiopian revival in Kampala


Ethiopian distance runner Getaneh Molla (© AFP / Getty Images)

There is always excitement in Ethiopia when an athlete comes along to simultaneously hold national titles in cross country and on the track.

Fascination takes over about their running style, comparisons are made with the country’s crop of past champions, and anticipation builds ahead of his or her next international foray.

So one can imagine the euphoria which greeted Getaneh Molla last month when he crossed the finish line at the 34th Jan Meda International Cross Country to take the senior men’s 10km title in Addis Ababa. The victory not only triumphantly confirmed his place in Ethiopia’s team for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017, but completed a unique double of two national titles in cross country and the 5000m on the track.

Comparisons were quickly drawn with the last Ethiopian to master both the track and the cross with equal success: Kenenisa Bekele.  

“Comparing me against Kenenisa [Bekele] is impractical,” says Molla. “Kenenisa is a unique creature. He is my inspiration and I have always admired him. This is a huge complement. It will help me realise my potential.”

Big responsibility on World Cross debut

With his record five short and long course double titles between 2002 and 2006, Bekele is the undisputed king of the mud and will not easily be emulated by future champions, especially after the unfolding of the short course race in 2011. 

In Kampala, however, Molla has set his sights on a first title on his World Cross debut and hopes to become the first Ethiopian in six years to win a senior men’s title following Imane Merga’s victory in 2011.

The Defence Club runner – along with compatriots national senior women’s champion Dera Dida, world U20 champion Letesenbet Gidey, and others – is also keen to reverse Ethiopia’s run of poor form whenever the World Cross Country Championships are held on African soil.

Memories are still fresh of the country’s forgettable experience in Mombasa, Kenya, 10 years ago when Bekele was outrun by Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese before dropping out of the race. Defending women’s champion Tirunesh Dibaba could only finish third, while several members of the team suffered heat strokes and had subpar races as temperatures topped 35C and the humidity wobbled at about 93% in sauna bath-like conditions.

“I expect tough competition because our rivals will be well prepared,” says Molla. “I do not know the Kenyans individually and cannot say which ones are particularly strong. I know my teammates are also tough runners. I will try my best to win, but I don’t mind if I lose to my teammate.

"Our coaches have told us about the weather we can expect. We are training around Kaliti [a warm and flat industrial suburb of Addis Ababa] in the afternoons to prepare for the hot weather. [I believe] this will give us better advantage.”

Modest beginnings

Molla’s story starts in Enjibara town, Abo Gimbini district of the Awi zone of the Amhara region where he was born to a large family of six sisters and one brother.

“I have this story from my family members,” he recalls. “The name Getaneh was given to me because my father was seriously sick just before I was born. After having me as a new born baby, he miraculously recovered from his poor health and the family praised God’s work ‘Getaneh’ (You are the lord). My father right away called me 'Getaneh' to commemorate God’s mercy to him.”

He took up running in school out of curiosity. “I had races at district level,” he says. “But the race I consider like my first one came when I competed in 2009 in the regional youth championship which took place in DebreMarkos town to recruit athletes for Tirunesh Dibaba’s Training Centre [a training centre funded by the Oromiya region and located in Assela about 600km away to develop future running stars].”

Despite finishing third in the 5000m, second in the 800m and third in the 1500m, he was not picked to join the centre. His chance would come a year later when he was recruited by the nearby Debrebirhan Training Centre, one of four national youth development centres funded by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.

“At Debrebirhan, all was not well for me,” he remembers. “I had very few races to compete and assess my shape. Moreover, I had injuries over and over again for the entire year. Fortunately, I had very good coaches there. They took care of me like a dad and a friend. They kept reminding me of my potential in athletics. They always told me my good days are ahead.”

He eventually recovered from injuries to line up for the centre at the youth development projects championship in Bahir Dar where he won the 3000m and finished third in the 5000m. The result qualified him for a trial race to be included for the national team late in 2012. He took the long bus ride of 530 kilometers to the nation’s capital in Addis Ababa and took the Addis Ababa stadium by storm, winning the 3000m.

“Being in the nationals was just unbelievable,” he recalls. “First, it is a national team. Second, this happened to me just a year after I thought my injury-stricken career would collapse. I was thinking like I was finished. But after training with some big names in the national team, I got my strength of mind back. I realised that I really have what it takes to be a very good athlete.”

Another stroke of luck

Buoyed by his inclusion in the national team, Molla continued doing well on the domestic circuit. After making his debut in 2013, he won the final race of the Coca Cola Road Series of 5km in Addis Ababa in June 2014 and ran his first ever race in Montgeron, France, clocking 7:52.97 in the 3000m.

But it was in 2015 that Molla’s rise was confirmed at the African Games in Brazzaville, Congo.

“I will always remember how I clinched a place on the team,” he says. “We were told winning the Ethiopian Championships would be enough to qualify for the African Games. Even though I won the national title, the selection was done based on the best running times abroad. This put me sixth in the pecking order. I believed I had no chance [to qualify] for Brazzaville, so I trained light as a reserve. There was always the chance to replace athletes who are injured and those who were less interested to run there.

"Then a week before the competition, Yenew Alamirew got sick and I took his place. I remember I had to sign next to his name when I received the national team kit from the store [because it was so last minute]. Thinking I had missed out, I had even gained some weight at the time. But I wanted to help the team to win.”

Molla did not just help add to Ethiopia’s medal count in the Congolese capital, but did the unthinkable by leading an Ethiopian 1-2 to win the African Games 5000m title on his international debut race in national colours.

Disappointment at missing Rio

Now in the continental limelight, Molla continued his dominance by winning the first of his national double in 2016 and set the stage for a fierce battle to be part of Ethiopia’s team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. But a few weeks after winning the 5000m title at the Addis Ababa stadium, tragedy struck.

“I was in misery because I lost my dad,” he says. “I took a long rest [to grieve for my father]. I even wanted to cancel the race in Hengelo because I was not mentally ready at the time. But my manager [Jos Hermens] convinced me to try my best. I was running well, but could not keep up with the pace in the last 400m and clocked only 13:05.59 to finish sixth.

"Had my personal tragedies never happened, I could have easily ran in the Olympics. I did not have the races to prove myself when I was in top form and the chance to be in Rio was gone.”

Kampala a stepping stone to London

His focus beams with excitement at the thought of lining up in Ethiopian colours in Kampala.

Molla prepares for national duty by listening to songs like Emeye Ethiopia (Mother Ethiopia), a nationalistic rendition of the country’s scenic landscape, hospitable people, and welcoming culture. He also talks about his dedication to the task after recently deactivating his Facebook account to focus on preparations.

“I did it to focus on my preparations,” he says. “I enjoy some people who write about their personal philosophies and post [inspirational] quotes. At the same time, I see people posting some bad things and that was proving a distraction.” 

After Kampala, Molla’s focus will shift to the summer track season where he will try to qualify for the IAAF World Championships London 2017 in August as he bids to atone for his absence in Rio. The task is easier said than done, though, as it now involves dethroning one of Olympic bronze medallist Hagos Gebrhiwet, cross country teammate Mukhtar Edris, and world indoor 3000m champion Yomif Kejelcha.

“With my current form, I believe I will have a place in the team,” he says. “But being in form is not enough. I need to secure a competitive time later.”

Elshadai Negash (with the assistance of Abiy Wendifraw) for the IAAF