Up-and-coming star wins Great Ethiopian Run despite disruption due to civil war and the coronavirus pandemic

All athletes in 2020 have been dealing with the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer have also had to contend with an under-reported civil war. Many athletes have suffered from a shortage of racing opportunities and few chances to make money from competitions. Far fewer have been unable to train for fear of simply leaving their homes.

Ethiopia’s Tsigie Gebreselama is one of the few Ethiopian athletes who has been dealing with the confluence of all of these tensions. Thus, when she won the Great Ethiopian Run on Sunday (January 10), the humble up-and-coming star felt immense gratitude for the opportunity. It was a close race, on a point-to-point course, with challenging hills in the heart of Addis Ababa, and finished in dramatic fashion, with a head-to-head sprint finish.

“I’m really happy with today’s race,” said the world under-20 cross-country bronze medallist after outkicking her competitor.

“I never stopped my training since the beginning of COVID but I had to stop my training for a little bit when the war started.”

Tsigie Gebreselama on the podium. Photo by Aman @angasurunning

Although Gebreselama was able to race on the day, she has made the most of incredibly unfortunate timing. One of her first big performances came in the 2019 Hengelo trials, where she didn’t qualify for the World Championships team, but did finish ninth in 30:57. At that point, her agent Malcolm Anderson focused on getting her as much international racing experience as possible.

“She won a 15km in Istanbul and Montferland, but the focus was still going to be on the track,” Anderson said. “2019 was really a stepping stone for her. She was able to get into a race indoors in the beginning of 2020, and was set to race on the road in the US in the spring, and obviously those plans just went up in the air.”

Gebreselama was slated to make her half-marathon debut in November at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon with a stacked elite field, but then conflict struck. On November 4, forces aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the area’s ruling party, attacked bases in Tigray region of the country, where Gebreselama is based, as tensions between the regional government and central state grew behind closed doors. The federal government simultaneously shut down electricity, telephone and internet services in Tigray, making it impossible for people within the region to communicate with those outside.

“We heard nothing for the whole of November,” Anderson said. “We were quite worried just like everyone else.”

After about six weeks Gebreselama was able to come to Addis Ababa to train, and hopefully get another chance at racing, but little has been easy since then.

“We still don’t have a lot of information or communication,” Gebreselama said, “Sometimes I have stress thinking about my family,  but at least now I can train and I am trying to focus on the next races.”

In addition to Gebreselama’s focus in the face of conflict and her obvious untapped potential, it was interesting to note her sponsor. Nearly all elite Ethiopian runners are backed by Nike or Adidas, and all were wearing the Nike Next% or Adidas Adios Pro on the start line. Gebreselama, however, is sponsored by ASICS, and wore the smaller Metaracers for her victory. She has been working closely with the brand and providing feedback in the development of the product.

That said, she is not switching to the roads just yet. After making the Ethiopian Athletics Federation shortlist for the Tokyo Olympics, that will be her main focus for the time being, with her sights set on more road victories and longer distances in the near future.

Gebreselama took home 100,000 Ethiopian Birr (£1866) for outsprinting Medihen Gebreselasie, 32:32 to 32:34. Gebreselasie took home 30,000 ETB (£560) ahead of Gebaynesh Ayele, who finished third in 32:44 (£224).

Ayele, who won the Bishoftu 30km race in Ethiopia a few weeks back, is one of the dozens of Ethiopian athletes who tried to cash in on one of the few domestic racing opportunities this year. Meagre as they are, relative to the money athletes can make abroad, the winnings reflect many of the larger realities athletes are facing during the pandemic.

Opportunities are scarce these days in Ethiopia but, even coming from a range of extenuating circumstances, athletes are making the most of them.

Click here to read more about the event and a men’s race report.

» For more on the latest athletics news, athletics events coverage and athletics updates, check out the AW homepage and our social media channels on TwitterFacebook and Instagram