RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Yigrem Demelash arrives for a training session and right away gets into an argument with one of the coaches.
The coach has an idea of how this session should go. Demelash, short, slight, 22 years old and yet to run at the Olympics, has a different idea and isn’t afraid to say it.
With a wave of his arm, Demelash dismisses the instructions, turns his back and jogs off down the track.
“I don’t have a good feeling about the current coaches,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in Ethiopia a couple of weeks ago.
Such is the style of Ethiopia’s new hope for a return to its former glory in the 10,000 meters. That glory slipped away with the retirement of the great Haile Gebrselassie and the fading of world-record holder Kenenisa Bekele, and was then wrenched away with the arrival of current Olympic champion Mo Farah.
Ethiopia used to own the 10,000 meters.
Between 1996 and 2008, the men’s 10,000 at the Olympics was an Ethiopian procession, with back-to-back golds by Gebrselassie and then his protege Bekele. At the world championships, the dominance reached another level. Ethiopians won gold in nine of the 10 worlds between 1993 and 2011. Four straight titles for Gebrselassie (1993-99), four straight for Bekele (2003-09) and one for Ibrahim Jeilan in 2011.
Since then, nothing.
Farah crashed the party, and it’s mighty tough to replace runners of the caliber of Gebrselassie and Bekele. But Demelash thinks there are also problems with the way Ethiopia plans for big events these days. The coaching, he contends, is one of them. Demelash says Ethiopia will never have another Woldemeskel Kostre, the legendary coach who trained Gebrselassie and Bekele and who died this year.
“In the past, when the running greats like Haile and Kenenisa were in the national squad, everything was good. There were good coaches and a good environment,” Demelash said from Ethiopia’s new sports academy in Addis Ababa. “Athletes and coaches should agree on many things but that’s not the case here.”
There’s another reason for Ethiopia’s slide, he said. Road races, where the competition is more regular and the money better, are draining Ethiopia’s best track talent.
“The 10K and 5K events are neglected,” Demelash said. “Other athletes (could) have an even better performance than Haile and Kenenisa if the sport is given due attention. But that’s not the case at the moment. All the attention is where the money is. … That’s road races.”
The emergence of Demelash, the 2012 world junior champion, has coincided with what appears to be a messy end for the 34-year-old Bekele, the holder of the world and Olympic records in the 5,000 and the 10,000. Bekele was set on running the marathon in Rio de Janeiro only to be told by Ethiopian track officials that despite making the Olympic qualifying time he hadn’t run enough big races over the last year.
Clearly unprepared for the shorter distance, Bekele then tried and failed in Ethiopia’s 10,000-meter trial, dropping out of a race that was won by Demelash in a personal best and world-leading time of 26 minutes, 51.11 seconds. That’s more than two seconds faster than Farah has run this year.
Bekele had strong criticism of the officials and their qualifying criteria after his snub, but they stood by their decision to exclude the world-record holder. As Demelash sees it, that’s another reason to doubt those in charge.
“It would have been a boost of morale for everyone if he was in the team,” Demelash said.
But he’s not, and the youngster now carries a heavy weight on his skinny shoulders. He must carry on after Gebrselassie and Bekele, two of the greatest distance runners ever and two who created an aura of Ethiopian power in the sport.
If it’s any consolation for Demelash, the track coaches back him and rate his talent highly. The feeling is not mutual.
Associated Press writer Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.