Ethiopia’s athletic legacy ignites Budapest hopefuls
For close to half a century, Ethiopian athletes have made their mark at the World Athletics Championships. Since first competing at the inaugural World Championships, Ethiopia has grown into a dominant force in long-distance running.
The Ethiopian athletics team competed at their first World Championships in 1976 in Helsinki with ten participants across five event categories. Athletes including Wedajo Bulti, Seyum Ngatu, Mohamed Keder, Bekele Debele, Girma Birhanu, Eshetu Tura, Girma Woldehana, Kebede Balcha, and Dereje Nedi represented Ethiopia in events including the steeplechase (3000m), 5000m, 10,000m, marathon and 20km race walk.
Kebede Balcha was one of the pioneering athletes, winning Ethiopia’s first ever silver medal in the men’s marathon.
Ethiopia finished 15th overall in their inaugural global athletics championships appearance. Since the beginning of the World Championships in 1976, Ethiopia has competed at all 18 editions of the event. At the 1993 tournament in Stuttgart, Haile Gebrselassie won gold and silver in the 10,000m and 5,000m respectively.
In the 2009 World Championships held in Berlin, Germany, Ethiopia entered 38 contenders across various distance events, including a strong contingent of middle distance athletes. The Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) had selected additional reserve athletes for these events under expanded entry allowances.
It was a historic competition where Kenenisa Bekele won double gold in the men’s 5,000m and 10,000m, setting a new championship record of 26:46.31 in the 10,000m. Fellow Ethiopian Derese Mekonnen took silver in the men’s 1,500m, while Tsegaye Kebede became the second Ethiopian to win silver in the marathon.
Mesert Defar and Meselech Melkamu won bronze medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m respectively, while Ayalew Wade grabbed bronze in the 1,500m. Assefa Mezgebu, another Ethiopian marathoner, took bronze. With a total haul of eight medals, Ethiopia finished 6th overall in the competition.
Two years later at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Ethiopia named a 34-member squad.
Ibrahim Jeilan struck gold in the men’s 10,000m, Dejen Gebremeskel in the 5,000m, Imane Merga defended his 10,000m title, and Sofia Assefa earned bronze medals in both the women’s 5,000m and marathon. The championship marked Ethiopia’s lowest finish at the World Championships since Berlin.
Ethiopia enjoyed greater success at the 2013 Moscow World Championships hosted in Russia. Highlights included gold medals for Tirunesh Dibaba in 5000m and 10,000m distances, and Mohammed Aman in the 800m.
The peculiar 800m distance won by Mohammed was particularly memorable for Ethiopians. In other events, Ethiopia collected an additional three silver and three bronze medals, finishing 6th overall in the tournament.
Ethiopian athletes continued to excel at the 2015 Beijing World Championships. The Ethiopian squad performed strongly not just in the long-distance events but also in the middle-distances. Ethiopia finished 5th overall with a haul of three silver and two bronze medals. Highlights included world champion Almaz Ayana’s gold in the 5,000m and Mare Dibaba’s gold in the marathon race.
At the 2017 World Championships in London, Ethiopia won two gold, three silver and one bronze medal. Ethiopia then claimed two gold, five silver and one bronze medal at the 2019 Qatar World Athletics Championships. Another highlight was Lemicha Girma silver medal in the men’s marathon, defending his world title.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought global lockdowns and disrupted competitions for two years, creating unique challenges for athletes. The 2022 Oregon World Championships especially proved difficult for athletes to train due to the pandemic.
In Oregon, Ethiopian athletes claimed four gold medals including the marathon for both men (Tamirat Tola) and women (Gotytom Gebreslase), the 10,000m for Letesenbet Gidey and 5,000m for Gudaf Tsegay.
Ethiopians broke the championship record in the men’s and women’s marathon and registered some of the fastest times of the year. With a total haul of 10 medals including four gold, it was one of Ethiopia’s most successful World Championships.
Anticipation runs high for what the Ethiopian team can achieve this year. While Ethiopian greats have erected their legacies on the track, a new crop of young athletes now carry the responsibility of upholding this proud heritage.
In a few days, Budapest will host the World Athletics Championships, considered the third biggest event after the Olympics and football World Cup.
The Championships will be another opportunity for Ethiopia’s modern cohort to etch their names in the record books. A talented Ethiopian squad has been training in preparation across various distances and will be aiming to add to the nation’s rich haul of medals across distances in the competition.