Illusive concept of teamwork in Athletics
First taking part in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, Ethiopia’s Olympic history is restricted to what is referred to as the “modern Olympic games”. Nevertheless, in this short time, both the event and country’s success in long-distance disciplines has formed a deeper foundation in the Ethiopian psyche. In this, teamwork and high-level of national spirit have become hallmarks of Ethiopia’s long-distance running. Well, it is not the case anymore as athletes becoming more individualistic at recent times, explore Dawit Tolesa and Asrat Seyoum.
The Ethiopian athletic generation of the early 1980s, which earned the nickname the “Green Flood”, has a memorable place in the county’s athletics history. The team that comprised of Mohammed Kedir, Girma Berhanu, Dereje Nedi, Kebede Balcha, Miruts Yifter, Eshetu Tura, Hana Girma and Tolosa Kotu, which took team gold in the 1981 IAAF Cross-country Championship in Madrid, Spain got their name from the bright green running jersey that they were wearing and their distinct team effort to sweep all the medals available for the senior men 12k event.
Unfortunately, Mohammed Kedir was the only Ethiopian out of the “green flood” squad which managed to add his name to the medal list. The event saw an America long-distance hall of famer Craig Virgin claiming his first cross-country win, which he managed to retain in 1982.
The story of that senior 12k event also has other twist to it which says that the “Green Flood” was a near miss to sweep across all the medals in that competition. According to commentators, who give detail account of the cross country event, the team which was led by Mohammed Kedir has merely misfired its weapon in such a way that it has tried to break out of the rest of pack a tad early: when two laps was remaining in the race. According to the accounts, the plan for the team was to employ the same tactics but at the final lap in the race.
Well, anticipation got the better of them and they broke out early, which resulted in running out of steam and the others catching up with them at the final stages of the race. Mohammed fought with Virgin to clinch the second place and take home the only medal for Ethiopia in the discipline. The rest of the “green flood” managed to get 7th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 30th and 32nd, spots.
Nevertheless, that race left a mark on the minds of Ethiopian athletes and the spectators alike. At the risk of exaggeration, one can say that Ethiopian athletes have been trying to do what the “green flood” has tried and have not succeeded fully. It is not only sweeping all the medal positions but ensuring all Ethiopian athletes in the team hold all the respective wining positions in the race. Nonetheless, they have tried to do this in prestigious international events like the Olympic Games.
A case in point is the amazing display of teammate spirit in Athens 2004 10,000 meters men event. The winner, Kenenisa Bekele, kept looking back to the injured and falling behind Haile Gebresilassie, who was a senior and legend in Ethiopian athletics at the time. The race ended with Kenenisa clinching first place, Sileshi Sihin second and Zeresenai Taddese, Eritrean long-distance hero, taking the third place and Haile coming in fifth.
Even after the end of the race, Kenenisa can be seen looking back for Haile to start the celebratory lap around the track. His show of comradely and team spirit was received with massive respect from Ethiopian spectators. But these events have left impressions which are far deeper than that. Now, teamwork can be said to have become an integral part of long-distance running in Ethiopia; especially in the bigger stages such as the Olympic Games.
However, what does not seem to be coming up frequently is the validity of teambuilding and group work in major long-distance athletics competitions. And how far can athletes push this teamwork agenda in such competitions. In fact, at some corners, the nature of long-distance running whether it is an individual or team sports looks to be lost altogether. According to sport commentators and athletes, athletics is first and for most an individual sports notwithstanding relay and marathon team events.
According to Elshadai Negash, an athletics commentator and analyst, there are obviously different schools of thought when it comes to attributing success in long-distance events. “For me, individual excellence of athletes is more important than teamwork because you simply cannot have teamwork when there are no athletes with high-level of individual success in the team,” Elshadai told The Reporter.
Exactly, a week from today, the XXXI Olympiad would kick off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since athletics is the main sporting event for Ethiopia at the Olympic Games, a total of 45 athletes has been selected and have completed their preparation to set sail for Rio. As usual, the Ethiopian Olympic campaign looks to be putting most of its wining cards in far too few athletics disciplines namely marathon, 10,000 men and women, 5,000 men and women, 3,000 (steeplechase) men and women, 1,500 meters men and women and 800 meters also men and women.
The Ethiopian Athletics Federation has released the names of the final 45 athletes representing Ethiopia in these disciplines. The list indicates that the team has some of the best athletes in the world in the respective disciplines; none other than Genzebe Dibaba, younger sister of another legendary Ethiopian track runner Tirunesh Dibaba, is shining the brightest at the world stages at the moment. Slotted in the 1,500 event with Dawit Seyoum, Beso Sada and Gudaf Tsegaye, Genzebe is said to be an overwhelming favorite to win the race.
Perhaps somewhat upcoming but equally shining at the world of athletics is the Almaz Ayana with the best time of the year thus far in 5k track race. However, the women team 10k and 5k also includes the double Olympic gold medalist and record holder in the two disciplines Tirunesh Dibaba and another experienced athlete Gelete Burka.
The men’s team as well is not to be taken lightly. Although Mo Farah, also double gold medalist in the London Olympics, and undisputed champion in 10k and 5k track races at this time is expected to defend his title, the inclusion of young athletes like Yigerem Demelash, Tamrat Tola and Abadi Haddis, is a force to be reckoned with in 10k event.
According to Elshadai, with strong finishes in the 3,000m and 5,000m, Mo Farah has already shown that the key facets of his success are intact ahead of the Games and will be the overwhelming favorite to defend his titles from the London Games four years ago. “The key to Mo Farah’s success over the last four years has been his ability to run in the middle of the pack for the majority of the race and outkick his opponents in the last one or two laps,” he told The Reporter.
“None of the top contenders would be able to match his strong finishing kick,” Elshadai says. However, he also believes that athletes like Muktar Edris has been in inspired form this summer and the inclusion of a new generation of athletes including Yigerem Demelash and Abadi Haddis provides much-needed experience to the team.
Almaz looks to be confident to take the maximum two gold-medals from both 10k and 5k races at Rio. Hussein Shibo (superintendent), principal coach for the long-distance teams, is even more optimistic about Rio than the athletes. According to him, the Rio campaign has managed to select athletes from a rich and well-refined pool of athletes with the highest record times this year. “For example, we have about nine athletes who have clocked below 31 minutes in the 10k discipline; unfortunately we can only choose three athletes,” he told The Reporter.
The selection process started eight months ago with a total of 260 athletes who have the potential to be included in the Rio team. From there, the technical committee worked its way down to the final 45 albeit controversies regarding the decision to leave out legendary athletes like Kenenisa Bekele, who apparently has not managed to clock the minimum time.
Ambessaw Eniyew, State minister of Youth and Sport, is of the view that Ethiopian athletics has effectively eliminated the long-standing fear of producing adequate young athletes to take the place of old athletics heroes. “Around 75 percent of the athletes who comprises the Rio team are first-time participants in the Olympic Games. That to me is indication that our efforts to produce young substitutes are bearing fruit,” Ambessaw told The Reporter in an exclusive interview.
Although the likes of Genzebe, Almaz and some others in the Rio team are on the height of their game at the moment, rumors of waning team spirit and group work among the athletes abound the Ethiopian Olympic team is gaining momentum. According to the rumors, few athletes who are rising at the world stages at this time generally prefer to pursue their training and preparation for the Rio Olympic Games independently.
Granted most of them do follow their training sessions around the same locality, the actual training exercises they do are done under different managers/coaches. This is being viewed as negative tendency in the age-long culture of teamwork in Ethiopian long-stance running. According to Hussein, one has to gain the full perspective in this regard. He says that indeed some of the athletes are working under different conditions and are doing different training sessions in preparation to the Rio Olympics.
However, Hussein says that this is because there are different training needs that for different athletes in a team. For example, we need our senior athletes to have a stressful and intense training session so close to the games. However, he explains, the young athletes are not so much in need of more stressful training sessions. Apart from that, even among similar athletes, there is great difference in the capacity and strength and weaknesses. There are some athletes working with pacemakers and there are others working alone, he says.
“So, individual treatment is quite important,” Hussein argues. Nevertheless, the head coach generally claims that every athlete in his discipline is working under similar training programs and places. Nevertheless, less can be said for Nigussie Dechamo, head coach for middle distance disciplines. Here Genzebe’s absence is one that everybody seems to be talking about.
According to Nigussie, togetherness of the whole team is quite important for team spirit. Although Genzebe’s might as well be a reasonable absence, there athletic bodies should work to improve the conditions in the future. Elshadai is of the view that Genzebe’s absence is justifiable. For example, Genzebe is training in Europe because past experience tells us that her body type is susceptible to leg injuries if she trains on a rain-drenched surface, he says. “The June-August period in Ethiopia is a heavy-rain season and that is why she needs to migrate to warm-weather training locations in Europe,” he elaborates further.
Nevertheless, in general, the concept of individualism seems to be taking center stage. The fact of the matter remains that athletics in Ethiopia is becoming an increasingly individual sport. Both Almaz and Lemi Birhanu [frontrunner in the marathon team] for example, are of the view that because athletes are training with their independent coaches they will benefit from the special attention hence cumulatively paying off for the nation as well.
According to Gebregiebrier Gebremariam, former 10k and marathon runner, the science itself suggest that training and preparation of individual athletes should be individual at all times. This is because of the varying needs of each athlete. Nevertheless, the spirit of teambuilding and working as a team in competitions is something that should never be abandoned by Ethiopian athletics.
“This is inevitability in hindsight since most athletes, who are gaining critical acclaim, get acquainted with the international practice and would want to do the same,” he told The Reporter. And that, the facility and capacity of the coaches and trainers in the national team still has a lot to be desired. On top of that, the government system itself which awards and recognizes only those who have won medals and not those who contributed to the teamwork also have negative consequence on the team spirit in the general.