Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In Flight With Golden Athletes

By Tariku Taye
Jan 8 2004

As the British airways flight 6565 landed at the Bole International Airport in the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, there was a sigh of relief for the two internationally known athletes who were unfortunately traveling with the rest of us in the economy class. These athletes are returning from an athletics competition in Europe. He from England, she from Spain, both having just won gold medals in their respective field.

Although their look and body structure speaks volume about their profession, these athletes were not recognized by most of the passengers in the aircraft. On this flight, my seat was located at the stern of the plane, Triple seats are located on each side of the plane. My wife and I were sitting on one side with out having another passenger with us, while the seat on the other side was fully occupied and a young beautiful girl was sitting at the edge with two white males.

I looked at this young girl and wondered where I knew her. Her braided hair and her Nubian dark complexion reminded me of someone I know somewhere. For several minutes, I was browsing my memory file searching for her identity. Suddenly, as if I found the reat mystery of the cosmos, I was eager to ask her if she was Tirunesh Dibaba, the young athlete who won the 5000m competition in France. I remembered how, on that day, I jumped out of my seat when she crossed the finishing line. Fear of embarrassment kept me hesitating to ask if she is not whom I thought she was. I decided to wait until I found the right moment.

A few seats further ahead of us, a young man was kneeling and leaning on the seat and looking back ward towards us, It seems that he is searching for a reason to come and sit beside the young girl. After meals were served, this young man came and stood by her side. He looks like a very polite and down to earth person. Since I found a reason to talk to him, I asked him if he wants to sit beside me. He said no thank you. I told him politely to consider the offer again but his answer is still no, no thank you. Since we started a conversation, I took this opportunity to ask them if they are athletes, He answered right away, "Yes, yes, I am Sileshi Sihine and she is Egigayehu Dibaba." Although my first assumption was wrong about the young girl, my excitement grew as I kept on talking to them. I asked him if he was the one who came third in Paris, first in Addis run and first in LAGOS. He said yes, yes and yes. I told him how I'm honored to have him sit beside me. I coaxed him almost to take the seat. With two hands between his legs, he burrowed his head between his shoulders and dragged his feet to take the seat. For a man of his status, this kind of behavior could be considered bizarre by many, but for an Ethiopian it is a polite gesture.

The name Egigayehu didn't strike me at first but the last name's resemblance with Tirunesh Dibaba excited me more to ask her if they are sisters. Her snowflake white teeth with a perfect smile glowed in the blurred light of the airplane and her nocturnal eye glanced at me and confirmed my assumption with a nod.

Sileshi become extremely happy, sitting with someone who has extensive knowledge of the names and history of Ethiopian athletes and their professional achievements. He asked how I came to collect immense knowledge on Ethiopian athletes. I told him that several years of continuous harassment of my country by its leaders and western media made me turn my face to look for role models and good citizens who once again could bring my country Ethiopia to the spotlight of the world and to show some of our good side. Where I live, I found the only good news coming out of that country were the great achievements of our athletes in the world stage. I walk with pride whenever I see our young, energetic and bold athletes rise to the podium to receive their medals. For those of us living in Diaspora you are our shining stars, that's why I follow up your stories.

I looked at Egigayehu and told her about the great achievements of her sister in the Paris competition, and how happy and proud I was the day she won the race, "You are going to be the golden family if you keep on winning", I said. To my excitement, she added that Derartu Tulu is her aunt. My excitement grew as I heard the name Derartu who is one of the greatest athletes in the world, the queen of long distance, and the double medal winner of the Olympic. With Derartu on their side, Ethiopia is blessed to have such a wonderful, internationally recognized family. They are the real jewel of
the country.

These very well mannered athletes grew up poor in a peasant family. Sileshi Sihine grew up in a small town called Sheno a few kilometers away from a town called Debre Birhan. "My father was a peasant who did grow enough food for the family. It was a struggle to survive in such a harsh condition but I used to go to elementary school in Sheno before I moved to Addis Ababa to pursue my career in athletics." he said.

"While I was continuing my high school study, I was searching for athletics clubs to support me in my career. I came to Addis Ababa with two of my friends, with the hope of becoming great athletes. Because of the extreme cost of living, my friends quit and went back to their village while I stayed on to fulfill my hope. If it was not for my elementary gymnastic teacher, who encouraged me a lot to become an athlete, and my role model Haile Gebreselassie whom I admire and respect, I might have probably gone back to my home town and become a peasant rather than an athlete. I kept on practicing everyday without losing hope."

"One day I was accepted to run with big athletes like Haile and Kennenisa Bekele. I proved that I can run and Paris was the highlight of my life, I become third after Kennenisa and Haile in the ten thousand meter athletic competition. Since then I have been running many great runs in Europe and Africa, I've been winning and winning and winning. Today I came from another competition in England, the great North run with another gold medal and few thousand dollars in my pocket. I've the news paper clips with me." he said with passion.

As he stood up to bring the news paper clips he brought with him, Egigayehu told me her part of the story. She also got a gold medal in Barcelona, Spain and showed me the Spanish newspaper clip with her picture in the front page wearing the gold medal on her neck.

In one weekend, three Ethiopians in women's and men's competition won gold medals in Europe. As Sileshi brought me the news paper clip, I saw Egigayehu's other sister, Tirunesh Dibaba, who was also another winner in the women competition in the Great North Run.

These athletes compete with the best of the world and are writing history with golden ink. These proud son and daughters of mother Ethiopia are the only hope to repair her tarnished image, while the educated and the the well off are running away from the country for a better world. For a country whose pride in the past is going down the drain and has become known as the poorest of the poor and worst place to live, such amazing people are the ones who bring her name to the high podium of achievers in the world stage of sports.

Sport is one of the measurements of strength in a society. A healthy society is one which takes the courage to participate in sports and have healthy well-built citizens. In today's Ethiopia, an early morning trip out of the capital proves that the future generation will dominate the world stage of running. Many young athletes are coming up to show the world our strength in sports. Hard work and continuous training is the way to prevail over poverty. We will learn more from our athletes about how to become successful than from our politicians and so-called elites.

That's why I love Roocha.

Mil gracias to our dear reader and contributor Tariku Taye not to be confused with Tariku Bekele or our favorite runner Tariku Aboset

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