As TOI Guest Sports Editor, the Ethiopian legend, also International Event Ambassador of the Vedanta Delhi Half Marathon, held us in thrall with his thoughts, memories and much more.
How did the journey begin?
Simple. I ran to school. There was no other way to get to it, so I, all of us, ran to school each day. We lived in the countryside and had to go to the town to school. And as it happens with school, you’d get late. It was not easy being on time when you have to run 10km every morning. To reach at 8 am, I would start at 6.30 am, and there would be a punishment waiting for you, or worse, they would ask you to get your parents to school.
I worked out a trick. I would ask anyone from my village, a neighbour or an uncle who was going to the city, to pretend to be my parent. It worked well till one day a teacher saw through the plan and asked my uncle to sign agreeing to a punishment for me. That’s when he got nervous and spilled the beans.
But yes, my running began not for fun, or for competition, but just as my daily activity. And you know, you even ran back. After school I had to be back home in time to help my parents. Otherwise, there would be a punishment waiting there too.
After you finish school, you have to help in the field. And everything was done like a hard labour hard, the traditional way. There was no machinery, you even carried water from the nearby river. A lot of India reminds me of that, of how the people work.
This also explains your strange running style, with your left arm stuck at the side…
Yes, if you watch the tapes of my races, mechanically my left hand is not active like the right one. The left one is crooked near the chest, like someone is carrying books under the arm. Of course, when you go to school and you have to carry books, you have to run a long distance. It became that way even when there were no books, and I was running at the highest level.
When did you realise that you began to enjoy running?
As a boy, I ran only to be in school on time. Sometimes, when I was late, I would not go in. That’s when I would go and watch films in the city. I watched a lot of Indian films. There was nothing else. There was communism in Ethiopia in those days and cinema was kind of banned. The only ones available were Indian and Chinese films. Oh, Indian films were a very big thing in Ethiopia then. I remember Mother India very well. In fact, I watch Mother India even now.
So, do you see any similarities with India then?
I had the chance to watch a documentary about India and those people and their transportation system where they carry tourists and luggage on their backs. I saw they were barefoot, and that is very, very similar to the place where I used to live and grew up.
When we helped in the fields, it would take hours to get water, especially during the dry season. The kids over there, they’re still doing it you know, even running to school, maybe this time, 5 km away.
Most of our athletes come from the countryside, very few from our cities. That’s the same thing with India.
You see, it’s an opportunity. Can India become world class in athletics? My answer is yes, it’s possible because you just have to find the first role model, and the others will follow, like Abebe Bikila did for Ethiopia with his marathon gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Not just Ethiopia, do you know how many Abebe Bikilas came around in Africa, in Kenya?
In India, if you see those people who live close to the Himalayas, there is not just a similarity. What we are used to in the countryside, it’s with the altitude here – up to 8000 metres above sea level. The maximum we have is 3000m, in the place where I used to live. Here in India… with the lifestyle, the food and the climb, just imagine the capacity of their lungs – much better than what we have back home.
But here in India when we talk about running, you also know that no one finished running without sweating or without pumping the heart and once you find the first athlete for India, the first champion from India, it will happen, believe me.
Abebe Bikila also won the marathon in Rome barefooted…
A barefoot is much better than the shoes. (Laughs). During the Roma Olympics, they gave him a pair of shoes. He tried them many times. And then he told his coach, ‘Please leave me alone. I don’t want to use these shoes. My foot is much better than these. Please allow me to do it my way. ‘
And imagine Rome. How hot it would have been? And now the question is, ‘Can I do now the same thing the way he used to run?’ I think the answer is No. Bikila was the best marathon runner ever.
How big is Bikila in your life?
Very, very big. Not only for me, but for the whole of Africa. Nobody knew about athletics before Bikila, nobody even cared about Africa.
The other thing was, Bikila won in Italy. We had a little problem with the Italians, for an Ethiopian to win a race in Italy means you just won a battle.
In Ethiopia, there’s a saying about Bikila’s Rome victory, ‘It took a million Italians to invade Ethiopia but only one Ethiopian soldier to conquer Rome.’
Yes, it the reason we really appreciate what he did, you know. We had a big fight with the Italians around the Second World War, and that’s why the Ethiopians, whenever they beat Italians, it is something else.
The person who came second, was from Morocco, but he ran for France because Morocco was not an independent country in 1960. That’s why the whole of Ethiopia was saying, “Wow, you see, we beat the Italians.” I’m not a politician, but sometimes that’s how people see it. Like in soccer, Brazil-Argentina, England-Germany. And same here, in cricket with your neighbour. Well, that’s in sport.
Actually, Bikila is also the reason so many runners in Kenya become Olympic and world champions. I always say, it’s thanks to Abebe Bikila.
Personally, of course, he died before I was born. He died in 1972, I was born in 1973. And I started athletics because of Miruts Yifter, who won 5,000 and 10,000m in Moscow 1980.
Tell us about the Ethiopian-Kenyan rivalry.
Kenya and Ethiopia as a big, big fight. I cannot say, ‘fight’ perhaps. It is a rivalry or a competition. In Ethiopia, we have many neighbours Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea. (But) The history between Ethiopia and Kenya is that these two countries are the only two not have had a fight, or war. We have a problem with Somalia, we have a problem with Sudan, we have a problem with Eritrea, we have a problem with all the neighbours, but not with Kenya. But these two in athletics. . . (trails off, laughing). The only problem is that peaceful fight.
Can you describe the Sydney 2000 10,000m?
First of all, I went to Sydney not to compete, just to give support to the rest of the team. Two days before the semifinal, my name is still there in the start list. My Achilles tendon was really very bad. I told myself, ‘Okay, let me run the semifinals. And I don’t care for the final. ‘ After the semifinal, it worsened, so winning with that was special. The other reason was that the competition was so tough. You know, my friend Paul (Tergat, of Kenya) did very hard training that year. His problem always was speed. I was told he did a lot of speed work, not in Kenya but in Switzerland. It was a lot of speed work. Also, Paul Tergat is a very, very strong competitor. And at the same time, I can say, he was unlucky. We came up at the same time, otherwise he would have been something else. Luckily for me, he won all the silver.
Apparently Paul Tergat is more loved in Ethiopia than Kenya…
We’re very good friends. And Paul is very, very well-known in Ethiopia. The other day, the Prime Minister was receiving him, we had gone for the inauguration of this 200km highway road to Kenya from Addis Ababa. The people over there, they came to him, “This man, this is the man. ” I told him, ‘You see, Paul, you are much better known than me. You are famous here. But not in Kenya. ‘ And we shared a good laugh. But the same goes for me, whenever I go to Nairobi.
There was another rivalry later with Kenenisa Bekele…
We competed in the beginning of his career. He became a world class athlete after I almost finished my career. In many races, we had no competition. I was almost leaving the track to him when I left. He started athletics because of me, he was not far from where I belong, we are from the same province, but a different town.
In Ethiopia, this civil war is not helping. As part of the elders group, what is the solution?
I think the propaganda, especially from the western media, is always to support just one part. They forget about the reality. The Tigray region belongs to Ethiopia, but it’s like they call it a different region here. I recently had an interview with the American media and they call it the government of Tigray. No, it is part of Ethiopia. They were a ruling party once, they were ruling the country and after the last defeat, ‘No, no, I have to win again. ‘ It doesn’t work like that. You have to respect the majority. But now, everybody’s involved.
This last world championships, out of five gold, three of them came from the region from Tigray, running for Ethiopia. That’s what I mean, as an athlete this is not just a problem between politicians. And, of course, when we talk about Ethiopia, when we talk about history, most of their history comes from the area. The rest of the world, they have to understand that. I’m a little disappointed (that they don’t). Because without Tigray, you don’t see the picture of Ethiopia. Can you see India without Delhi?
As an African, what do you think of the West’s perception of your continent? For example, what do you think of the UK proposing to relocate refugees to Rwanda?
Again, it’s small politics. I don’t understand why they are sending them to Rwanda. If you put yourself in their position, they’re just traveling so far just to wish to live just peacefully in London. What I want to ask the international community, especially the West, is ‘Really, if you want to live peacefully on this planet, we have to think about living in harmony. It’s not a time to show your power. It’s over. You don’t know who had the power (in the past). I think the Western world, they have to think about that.
That’s really it. You don’t know who has the power. The power belongs to maybe the small… the powerless country (is) maybe the most powerful country. That’s why let’s think about the future of our people, or our children and grandchildren and live on this planet peacefully.
This is not a soccer game where you are supporting this club and that club. It’s not like that. This is not just a game but playing with life. As an African, I think we should think about the people who live in Africa, Asia, Latin America.
Does the top African sportsman feel greater responsibility, socially and politically?
Many African athletes just wish, you know, to have best democracy in their own country. I wish just to have a peaceful democracy, that’s the best democracy. As a citizen of Africa, citizen of Ethiopia and a citizen of the world, I have some responsibility.
And that’s why I’m begging these politicians to bring peace. It’s not about winning. There is no winner nowadays, no winner. I think the time has come for all politicians to sit down and to discuss… let them lose. What is the big problem if America or Europe, or Russia or Japan or Germany were to lose? Is that a big thing? If you bring in peace, then lose, lose. That way you are winning. That is the only way left today?