Love, fun and pride – these words sum up what running means to Ethiopians.
The Great Ethiopian Run (GER), which spans 10 kilometres, took place in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday, 24 November. Almost 40,000 from Ethiopia and abroad took part in the 13th year of the event despite security warnings issued in the weeks prior. I was amongst them, hobbling past the finishing line with an abysmal finishing time and blisters on my blisters. It was an incredible experience.
“This is more like a party than a race,” commented a fellow Irish participant. He was right. The run was a joy to witness and take part in, with singing, dancing and water fights along the way. It felt like All-Ireland day, minus the booze and double the craic. Pure and utter magic – that’s the only way I can describe it.
Though there is a competitive element to the run, winning didn’t really seem to matter. The slow were coaxed along by fitter runners. “Good effort”, said one smiling Ethiopian, who passed me panting and sweating my way up a hill. That might sound condescending, but his gesture felt genuine. Any Ethiopian I’ve met so far has been wonderfully kind, hospitable and friendly.
National hero and double Olympic gold medallist Haile Gebrselassie once said “a day without running is not a day”. Ethiopians take athletics seriously and are extremely proud of their achievements. The country has spawned countless Olympic winners and record holders, many of whom started as children when travelling barefoot to school. It’s no wonder there is such a sense of occasion during the GER.
However, as wonderful as the event is, it also highlights the divide between rich and poor that exists in Addis Ababa. I spotted Ethiopian participants take photos using smartphones and iPads, while those from shanty towns watched from the sidelines.
Massive development is currently underway in Addis Ababa but don’t mask the fact that many of the city’s inhabitants are living in acute poverty. Will these people benefit from growth in Ethiopia? That remains to be seen.