It’s a crisp morning in Addis Ababa and Kenenisa Bekele is on his knees whispering Amharic incantations against an outer wall of the city’s Medhane Alem Cathedral. Around him, in the shady cloisters of Africa’s largest Orthodox church, dozens of worshippers clutch the stone carvings and pray in low murmurs as the incessant traffic roars past.
The world’s 10,000m and 5,000m record holder never forgets to say his prayers before he sets out on his morning training in the Entoto Hills. “I am really a religious man,” he says. “This is something my family taught me.”
In many ways, running is also his religion. Bekele’s career is the result of years of devout, dedicated discipline to his sport. The 29-year-old hails from Bekoji – a remote town of just 16,000 people that has been dubbed “the fastest place” on earth.
With good reason. The high altitude settlement that sits on the flank of a volcano 270km south of Addis Ababa, has produced a disproportionately large clutch of Olympic gold medalists. The long distance champion Tirunesh Dibaba, the sprinter Derartu Tulu and marathon runner, Fatuma Roba, all went to school here and trained at dawn on the town’s dirt tracks under the tutelage of the legendary coach, Sentayehu Eshetu. Yet Bekele is one of Bekoji’s most successful residents; he holds three Olympic gold medals and 16 world titles: five on the track and 11 in cross-country.
He owes a lot to coach Eshetu’s punishing early morning training sessions on the red earth and the highlands forests of Oromia State. Eshetu identified the young Bekele and his brother early on and by their late teens the two had moved to Addis Ababa and into Ethiopia’s athletic elite. “For Ethiopians, running is a tradition. It’s so important to everything we do. We start running without shoes,” says Bekele. “We have a legend, Abebe Bikila, who has inspired us. He is the reason so many of us started long distance.”
In many ways Bekele’s story mirrors that of his icon, Bikila, the son of a shepherd who famously won the 1960 marathon at the Rome Olympics, storming to victory barefoot when his Adidas shoes proved too small. “It was 12 years ago when I started running,” recalls Bekele. “I realised I had a talent. It was running. It was my obligation to use this.”
Today, the lithe long-distance runner draws crowds wherever he goes. In the cool of the cathedral, even the severe warden who patrols the perimeter with an enormous stick appears quietly star-struck. But despite the considerable wealth and stature his sporting feats have brought him (he married the Ethiopian film actress Danawit Gebregziabher in November 2007) he is private, shy and decidedly humble. “To be famous, this doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “I am a legend for sports people, for the young generation – I am an example for them. But maybe the young people, they are achieving more than me. You can’t exaggerate fame. It is just hard work.”
Still, he relishes the moments on the track. The athlete’s eyes widen when he recalls his record-breaking moments. “You know, it’s a special time. When I reach that end of the line I’m thinking, I did it. I achieved what I planned and what I dreamed. It’s just feeling special and feeling nice. Breaking records is not easy – not all sports people can do this. Only one. This makes you different.”
Despite his Olympic achievements, Bekele doesn’t have a coach, or a coterie of agents or nutritionists. Instead, he coaches himself and trains with his brother, Tariku, who arrives with him in a small Peugeot and then silently shoots off jogging around the cathedral grounds. “I like to coach myself,” he says. “I like to train with Tariku. He keeps me company. He is one person very close to me.”
After a recent stint off the track nursing a ruptured calf muscle, Bekele is hopeful that he’ll be on form for the Olympics this July. “At this time I am happy. I am planning to be in good shape in London,” he says. “There’s a good atmosphere around me. I run twice a day. I achieved strong results at two Olympics like this, so I am not going to change my routine. I am comfortable and confident. It will be special to be in London. I will try to make history there.”
Bekele knows the symbolic value his sport brings to Ethiopia and admits that his euphoric moment clutching his nation’s green, yellow and red tricolour flag sends a powerful international message. “When I am running and representing Ethiopia in the Olympics and World Championship I am representing my flag and presenting my people. I think my country achieved many things,” he says. “For my Ethiopia it’s very good.”
Whether he can achieve the world record-smashing successes or double Olympic gold he won in Beijing 2008 still hangs in the balance. But one thing is clear – Bekele has already entered the Pantheon of Ethiopian runners. In a country that has endured so much famine and conflict, long-distance athletes such as Bekele are source of national pride; they are icons to thousands of children. For a population who often sees privilege go to a corrupt political elite, he is a role model with integrity. Indeed, Bekele is currently building an athletics academy just outside Addis Ababa to help nurture future generations of stars. For now, Meskel Square – better known for political rallies – is the unofficial training ground for hundreds of young runners.
As Bekele leaves with his brother the two kneel again at the footsteps of the vast church. Then, one of the world’s greatest runners jumps in his unassuming car and makes off to train in the hills.