Double world champion Yomif Kejelcha says the allure of a unique prize first offered to Haile Gebreselassie explains Ethiopia’s athletics ascent, not doping, despite complaints from a British athletics coach earlier this week.
Kejelcha and team-mate Genzebe Dibaba were each promised large plots of land in the capital Addis Ababa to incentivise them to win gold medals at the World Indoor Championships, which recently concluded in Birmingham.
However, Dibaba’s reputation within the sport has been blighted by the 2016 arrest of Jama Aden, her coach at the time and whose current whereabouts are unknown. The Somali was arrested following an investigation that culminated in the discovery of the performance-enhancing EPO.
Andy Young, the coach of Britain’s Laura Muir, said Dibaba’s association with Aden was “unhealthy” for the sport after watching his athlete settle for silver and bronze behind her controversial rival in the 1,500m and 3,000m.
After finishing seventh in the medal table at London’s World Athletics Championships last summer, Ethiopia placed a lofty second in Birmingham.
Speaking after winning the men’s 3,000m, Kejelcha told The Independent that his nation’s athletes are fuelled by the incentive of being given land bonuses by the government – not drugs.
Similar prizes were given to the legendary runner Gebrselassie when he put Ethiopia on the map by winning two Olympic gold medals across 10,000m and breaking the marathon world record.
“In previous years the government would give land to the athletes,” Kejelcha told The Independent. “This happened to Haile, but then stopped for several years.”
“Then last year [at the world championships in London] the government brought them back again.”
Mukhtar Edris was the first beneficiary – and Mo Farah the first victim. The British athlete was pipped to gold in the 5,000m, his final competitive track race, by Edris in a photo-finish also featuring Kejelcha.
Edris and women’s 5,000m champion Almaz Ayana both received 500 square metres of land to develop in Addis in the wake of their London success last summer. The city is overcrowded and Chinese construction firms are currently overseeing the most intensive urban development in Africa. Many Ethiopians have been displaced, some by force, to create space. Land is highly valued.
“The government should continue [with their policy] because what we do as athletes to raise the flag for Ethiopia is not easy,” said Kejelcha.
“We receive a lot of dollars for winning competitions but if our country gives us extra motivations we will win again and again and again.”
The return of land bonuses coincided with Gebrselassie’s appointment as president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.
The runner was the first Ethiopian athlete to receive a land bonus, after winning two Olympic gold medals and breaking 27 world records.
Gebrselassie has made more money from investments and business deals than he ever did as a runner and recognises the value of financial incentives to athletes who typically come from poor backgrounds, despite recent economic growth.
The introduction of the unusual bonus scheme won’t satisfy everyone as an explanation for Ethiopia’s success. Gebrselassie recognises there are temptations to take shortcuts in a country where EPO is readily available in pharmacies. Last year he told The Independent Ethiopia would introduce prison sentences for doping and at least one athlete has since been jailed.
“We now receive short seminars on doping,” Kejelcha adds. “Doping is killing our sport so we all have a responsibility to be educated and be clean. It is not just the Federation’s responsibility or the Government’s, it is up to the athletes and their managers.”
Dibaba told The Independent her success was attributable to a determined pursuit of sporting glory that runs through her family. Genzebe’s older sister Tirunesh is even more decorated, boasting three Olympic gold medals to her name. “We are concentrated only on our training, so we can make history,” the younger Dibaba said.
The Ethiopian Athletic Federation have told The Independent that Dibaba is no longer coached by the disgraced Jama Aden. Hussein Shibo and Tolera Dinka have been responsible for her training programme “since September 2017”. Dibaba has never failed a drugs test and there is no suggestion of wrong-doing.
Aden will remain a figure of interest nonetheless. Last year he was spotted at the Diamond League in Qatar, which will host the next World Championships in 2018.
Ethiopia’s final gold medalist in Birmingham was Samuel Tefera. The 18-year-old caused an upset by taking the title just 36 days after his first indoor race.
Tefera’s victory cemented unprecedented dominance over neighbours Kenya, who failed to collect a single gold medal and picked up just one bronze in total. Both countries enjoy high altitude conditions favourable for distance running.
“Kenya are a very strong nation over the longer distances,” said Tefera. “Ethiopia has overtaken Kenya and now we want to overtake every other nation too.”
The track retirement of Farah – currently training in Addis for the London Marathon – also helped Ethiopia’s cause in Birmingham. Only America finished ahead of them in the medal table.
Tefera added: “We are already planning how to build up our sprinters for the future.”