The Olympic Games, which have been in limbo for the past year and received a lot of banter for alleged health and safety disregarding timings, are days away from kicking off. The Ethiopian athletics team, which has been preparing for the Tokyo Olympics for the past eight months, is expected to head to Japan in a few days.
However, disputes between the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) and the Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC) over various issues and complaints regarding the selection of athletes and coaches, has somewhat dampened the mood around the camp. Dawit Tolesa of The Reporter caught up with the EAF President, Derartu Tulu (Commander) to discuss over the issues. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The Tokyo Olympics, which had been extended by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are just days away. How is the overall performance of the Ethiopian national athletics team?
Derartu Tulu: Well, athletics will be represented by a large number of delegates. Ethiopia partakes in swimming, cycling, taekwondo, and athletics in the Tokyo Olympic Games. The Ethiopian athletics national team has been preparing for the past eight months and are still preparing. We have conducted three trial races including the Ethiopian athletics championships, Hengelo, and Sebeta trial marathon races.
We have selected athletes who competed in this three trial races for the Olympic Games based on their results. Although, we planned to select 38 athletes, we only succeeded in recruiting 35.
What is the current status and preparation of the athletes who have been preparing for months?
Many athletes have been preparing and going through the screening process over the past few months. The COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting our preparations. However, except for the gap with the Ethiopian Olympic Committee, trainers, technicians, medical staff as well as the executive body of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation are monitoring the process from the bottom up.
Beyond that, all athletes are healthy, and they are free from COVID-19. Nonetheless, if something happens to athletes, there are reserve athletes who will replace them.
Some athletes have shined in individual competitions and have previously represented their country in various international competitions. To that effect, their absence from the Olympic team has provoked criticism. How does the federation respond to this complaint?
First, when a national team prepares for a tournament, athletes are called in based on their results. The athletes have been selected after their personal best was reviewed by coaches, technicians, and executive committee members. After residing in the hotel, they are not only prepared but have also been supervised by coaches and various health professionals.
As I mentioned earlier, all athletes are selected on a trial basis. Of course, some athletes performed in various international competitions. However, they have not participated in domestic or international trial races.
50 percent of the coaches selected for the national team will be selected based on experience and education, and the remaining 50 percent will be selected by athletes. However, coaches who have been coaching the national team for the past few months have not been selected; they argue their exclusion is inappropriate. How did the selection of coaches take place?
According to the requirements set by the EAF for coaches, education, experience, and the number of athletes the coach has in the selection are paramount. The education and experience of a coach who has three of his athletes selected and another who has one selected cannot be compared.
A coach who has only one athlete with experience and education cannot be chosen by a coach who has chosen many athletes. The National Federation gave priority to athletes who could win gold at the Olympics.
It was a controversy over the choice of marathon athletes. Former Olympic champion, Kenenisa Bekele, has been the subject caught between the Olympic Committee and the Athletics Federation. What does the Federation say about this?
I don’t think there are enough words to testify to Kenenisa’s heroism. Kenenisa is a golden boy of Ethiopia. Kenenisa’s inclusion in the Tokyo Athletics team is tantamount to remembering Abebe Bikila in Tokyo.
However, Kenenisa did not run in 2020. Other athletes were resting in a hotel and preparing properly. He could not attend the trial races as well. It was the Olympic Committee that deliberately caused the controversy among the people.
During trial races, decision was made by athletes and coaches. Meanwhile, 10 men and 10 women were selected and sent to the Olympic Committee. Following the Olympic Committee’s decision to reduce the number of athletes, six from each of the sexes, athletes including Kenenisa, were selected and screened.
According to the coaches, Kenenisa was absent from the practice and had leg pain. So, an athlete, who has not been involved in any of the trial races and preparations cannot be included in the team. On the other hand, Kenenisa himself has accepted the decision, saying if the federation does not approve me, the athletes should practice calmly.
What is the relationship between the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) and the Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC) like?
Our relationship with the Committee has come a long way for us. There are still challenges regarding the EOC. For example, prospective athletes, coaches, and the delegation traveling with the national team have not been confirmed. Preparations regarding travel accreditation, national team uniforms, and athletes COVID-19 protocol filling application, which must be installed on the phone, had to be completed earlier, but they did not. In addition, they do not respond appropriately and on time.
We all know that the government, regional states, and institutions have provided sufficient funds for the Olympic team. However, the EAF spent more than 38 million birr for the preparations, but could not be replaced by the Olympic Committee.
What is expected of the Ethiopian national team at the Tokyo Olympics?
Our athletes have been preparing for more than eight months. Some athletes also shine in individual competitions. We anticipate better results than the previous Olympic Games.