The answer: Gudisa Shentema, one of Ethiopia's marathon runners that will be competing at the World Championship in Osaka, Japan tonight. I will elaborate on the story of Gudisa in just bit, but first...
It is no secret that Ethiopia and Kenya are the top two nations in the world when it comes to distance running. And among the two, Ethiopia is ahead, especially when it comes to championship events. However, when you consider all races around the year and around the world, Kenya is light years ahead of Ethiopia in terms of the depth of its talent pool. Just consider the following example: in 2006, of all the marathons run in 2hr 10 min or faster, Kenyans produced 37 of them while Ethiopians accounted for only six. So far in 2007, the fastest Ethiopian performance has been by Gashaw Melese, a 2:09:53 in Paris, but there are 17 Kenyan performances faster than Gashaw's. This is domination!
Ethiopia has produced more legendary runners such as Abebe Bikila, Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie than Kenya has. When we compare the very best of Ethiopia with Kenya, it appears that Ethiopia is ahead. The obvious question, then, is why doesn't Ethiopia have the same depth of athletes outside of championship competitions?
I think a possible answer is two fold. First, Kenyan federation does not have a stranglehold on the talent pool as does the Ethiopian federation. There is more room for Kenyan talent to surface and blossom, and in time produce performances such as I stated above.
But I believe the second answer is the key regarding why there is such a big gap in the depth category between the two countries. Ethiopia is a country of 80 million while Kenya's population is only about half of Ethiopia's. Considering Ethiopia has a much bigger pool to recruit talent from and the fact that Ethiopia's best have been better than Kenya's best, I am absolutely convinced that, given the right conditions (an absolute key), Ethiopia can and will produce depth of runners that will dwarf even the mighty Kenya!
By right conditions, I mean alleviating poverty and disease and absence of devastating wars. Now, I know full well that Kenya is not free of these foes of humanity, but I believe Kenya has had less of these issues to deal with than Ethiopia. Particularly, in the war category. I do not recall any major war Kenya has been engaged in as Ethiopia has with Eritrea and Somalia. One has to wonder what Ethiopia is capable of producing, in athletics and otherwise, if its human resources were not bogged down in political strife and war and their paralyzing effects.
And that brings me back to the story of Gudisa Shentema. Gudisa has an amazing story that needs to be told and retold. Frankly, I find it surprising that this story has not been circulated widely considering the powerful message it carries. I came across it while reading the media guide from his sponsor, Global Athletics and Management.
So, who is Gudisa Shentema? Gudisa Shentema is a 27 year old Ethiopian soldier-turned-marathoner. Most recently, he finished second, behind none other than Haile Gebrselassie, at the 2006 Berlin Marathon where Haile came within a minute of breaking the marathon world record. Gudisa ran 2:10:43 in Berlin, good enough to earn him a spot at Osaka's World Championships.
But Gudisa's path to Berlin, and now Osaka, has the most unusual beginning. As an eighteen year old, he was at the front of the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea war (dispute over Badme). Here is Gudisa's story as written in the media guide:
Born in Ambo, about 85 miles from Addis Ababa, Gudisa Shentema was raised by an aunt and grew up with no interest in sports. In 1998, when the war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, he joined the Army and went to the front. In 2000, he was returning to his brigade after a brief leave when the bus stopped for a tea. A heavy smoker, Shentema went into a bar to have a cigarette, looked up at the TV, and "saw a guy named Gezahegne" winning the Olympic marathon in Sydney. "That scene never left my mind, so when I got back to my brigade I found out they had a 21K race in two months so I enrolled and won easily." When the war ended, he began training in Addis and made quick progress: in 2002 he finished 71st in the Abebe Bikila Marathon; in 2003 he won it. Shentema is now represented by GA&M, along with Gezahegne Abera, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist who distracted him from his cigarette.
Gudisa has run in more marathons since 2003, including the 2005 World Championships, and done well in most of them. In Osaka's World Championship Marathon to be run in few hours from now, Gudissa is not even given an outside chance of getting a medal according to the experts. It is my wish, though, that he will have a breakthrough performance so that his story gets told to a bigger audience.
But I wonder, what if Gudissa was among the tens of thousands that were killed in a meaningless war a decade ago? How many more undiscovered marathon aces died in Badme? As the song goes, "War, what is it good for?"