Zersenay Tadesse (ERI) takes an unexpected bronze medal in Athens (© Getty Images)
Eritrea’s recent past has not always been a happy one, but the country’s future looks bright in the sporting arena thanks to an emerging group of athletes lead by Zersenay Tadesse. Phil Minshull profiles the 2005 World Cross Country Championships silver medallist.
A quick search on the internet will tell you that 24 May is Eritrea’s National Day, but for sports fans from the tiny country of barely four million people, 20 August has gone into the diary as the date for celebrations.
It was on that day last summer that Zersenay Tadesse surprised many pundits by winning Eritrea’s first Olympic medal, picking up a bronze over 10,000 metres behind the already legendary Kenenisa Bekele.
“The moment I crossed the line, I became Eritrea’s most famous sportsman,” commented Tadesse, not boasting but merely stating a fact.
“Maybe I’m the most famous person in the country outside of political circles, although there are some famous singers,” he added, reflecting on all the accolades he received on his return to Eritrea in the wake of his Olympic outing.
Considering that Eritrea had only been a member of the International Olympic Committee for five years, after joining the IAAF in 1992, Tadesse’s Athens achievement was far beyond what was expected, both at home and abroad.
“Every athlete dreams of winning an Olympic medal and I hope people will now know the name of Eritrea,” said the smiling and jovial Tadesse.
He is now so popular among fellow Eriteans, even those that no longer live there, that he nearly missed the start of a cross country race at the beginning of the year in Scotland signing autographs for his compatriots. “I didn’t even have time to warm up but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone!”
If the Olympics heralded Tadesse’s arrival as a serious rival to Bekele, then his silver medal at the World Cross Country Championships in the French town of St Galmier confirmed his growing stature despite only standing 1.60 metres in his running spikes.
Bekele once again proved to be out-of-reach but Tadesse, who has just turned 23, ran an astute race to elevate himself to being the best of the rest of the distance-running fraternity.
“After my Olympic bronze, I was hopeful I could get a medal but no one comes to an event like this guaranteed of anything. I knew it was going to be tough because at this event there are the best runners in the world so I prepared like I have never done before,” said Tadesse, after his silver medal in St Galmier.
The relative triumphs of Bekele and Tadesse also again demonstrated the marvellous ability of sport to transcend political problems.
One of the more uplifting scenes in St Galmier was the sight of Ethiopian and Eritrean ex-patriots dancing together besides the race course on a warm Sunday afternoon, with their respective flags wrapped around their shoulders or waving in the air.
There was no animosity or bitterness between the two groups despite their neighbouring countries’ political histories being unpleasantly intertwined.
Eritrea is still recovering from its long and debilitating war, which stretched over three decades, with various regimes in Ethiopia.
It finally came to a conclusion with Eritrean independence being declared in 1993, although formal separation has not ended the hostilities.
More by luck than judgement, Tadesse had a relatively trouble-free childhood, living 200km from the Eritrean capital Asmara in an area that was one of the least affected by fighting.
He did not suffer the same depravations of Eritrean-born American marathon runner Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medallist, who decided to flee his native country on foot, hiding in bushes until nightfall.
“My father had seven children but he was quite successful at selling the things that grew on our farm. If I had to describe what it was like when we were young, I would say it was regular. We were not a rich family we were not poor either,” reflected Tadesse.
By the second half of the 1990s, with peace and some very modest prosperity generally restored to the country, Tadesse was able to take up cycling.
The remarkable runner from the country by the Red Sea attributes some of his success to building up his endurance during his years as a teenager in the saddle.
“I only started running, at least seriously, when I was 19. Cycling was my first love and I dreamed of being a cycling professional with one of the great teams in Europe, but I realised that is not a realistic possibility coming from Eritrea.
“But I did win a number of cycling races there. They were not over the long distances you have in professional races in Europe, more usually over 30 to 50 kilometres, mainly because we don’t have so many roads you can race on.
“My successes at cycling suggested to some local athletics people I might have good stamina and they invited me to compete in a race. I won that race, and I did well in the following races and I carried on running.
“I only had a few races before I took part in a national championship in 2001. I won that,” added Tadesse, in his usual matter-of-fact fashion.
Links between Spanish manager Julia Garcia and other Eritrean runners, including Yonas Kifle who finished fourth in the 2002 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, led to Tadesse’s potential being noticed beyond the borders of his native country.
In February 2002, he joined Kifle in Madrid, which he still uses as his European base, and six weeks later managed to finish 30th in the long race at the 2002 World Cross Country Championships. With a year’s proper training under his belt, Tadesse improved to ninth in 2003 and sixth 12 months later.
The question now is, where does Tadesse go from here?
After finishing 14 seconds behind Bekele in St Galmier, he did not want to talk about whether he could beat him on the track this summer but many people believe Tadesse will soon be able to mount a challenge to Bekele’s supremacy.
“Zersenay is still learning,” said his coach Jeronimo Bravo. “He still needs to improve his tactics, decide where to push but he’s reading races much better.”
“What is special about Zersenay is that he can combine very high levels of hard work with a very quick recovery. He doesn’t have Bekele’s turn-of-speed but he can maintain a very fast consistent pace which few runners are capable of sustaining. He’s also very good at running his own race, staying focussed and not getting distracted,” added Bravo.
Tadesse may soon be accompanied in the headlines by other Eritreans.
He and Kifle were accompanied to St Galmier by Samson Kiflemariam and Tesfayohannes Mesfen.
The latter pair both finished in the top 20 and Eritrea finished just out of the medals in the team competition in fourth place.
It would be easy to get carried away on a wave of euphoria about Eritrean prospects and there have been a few false dawns of hope from the Horn of Africa.
Eritrea’s neighbour Djibouti had a number of impressive results in the 1980s, notably with Ahmed Salah winning the 1985 IAAF World Marathon Cup and then getting a bronze in the 1988 Olympic marathon, but there was no new generation to follow in their footsteps.
However, such a downturn in fortunes for Eritrea seems rather unlikely. There are already young runners from Eritrean snapping, albeit from a distance, at Tadesse’s heels.
His younger brother Kidane has taken inspiration from his older sibling’s exploits and came home in 16th place in the junior men’s race, leading the Eritrean junior men’s team to fifth place and just a handful of points away from the podium.
It might not be long before a big threat to Tadesse’s fame among his fellow Eritreans, and Eritrean musicians for that matter, emerges from within his own family.
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 1 - 2005