Betelehem Zerihun Amesa and Gadisa Zawude Legese went to bed fairly early on the final evening of their exciting four days in Berlin. The two up-and-coming Ethiopian runners were not allowed to attend the Runners Party, as you had to be 18 or over. Though the athletes, who have only just turned 16, would certainly have received much praise there. After all, earlier on that Sunday they had won the Berlin Half Marathon, at least in the “Under 18” age group. Betelehem Zerihun Amesa ran the 21.0975-kilometre course through the German capital in 1 hour, 28 minutes, and 32 seconds to win the female Under 18s. And Gadisa Zawude Legese crossed the finish line on Karl Marx Allee in eastern Berlin after just over 71 minutes as fastest male under-18s. After the race, remarkably level-headed, Amesa said “I’m proud and happy”. “Things could have gone even better,” Legese said with a touch of self-criticism, “but I missed the water stations and kept on dropping off the pace,” the exciting new talent from Ethiopia added by way of explanation of his 57th place overall. Not that he is disappointed though.
Ticket to Berlin
Visibly exhausted shortly after the strenuous race, the young athletes are still looking for words to describe one of their greatest adventures to date. It began almost two years ago, on 3 October 2015, the Day of German Unity. On that particular day, the German Embassy in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa organised a German Unity Run, which took place high up in the thin air of the Ethiopian capital. Some 3,000 young Ethiopians took part in the four-kilometre event. The prize for the winner of each of the men’s and the women’s race was a place in the Berlin Half Marathon. Amesa and Legese also took part. Their trainers had registered them. “We didn’t really know what to expect there. And then we won,” Legese says, recalling the memorable day. German ambassador Joachim Schmidt and the Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie were the patrons of the Unity Run. The latter, two-times Olympic champion over 10,000 metres at the Games in Atlanta, USA (1996) and Sydney, Australia (2000) and multiple marathon world champion, is regarded as one of the founders of the Ethiopian long-distance phenomenon. He is the idol of all young runners in the northeast African country, and it goes without saying that Betelehem Zerihun Amesa and Gadisa Zawude Legese are among them.
Having by then reached the minimum age of 16, in 2017, at the invitation of the Federal Foreign Office, the talented young runners finally got to take part in the Berlin Half Marathon. They were both born near Addis Ababa, in small towns at an altitude of over 2,000 metres, where they still live today. Their extraordinary long-distance running talent was recognised early on in their schooldays, and they subsequently received support. Amesa and Legese now train regularly in a running group, Legese even in a club. They put their running shoes on as early as 5:30 a.m.. And then again in the evening, after school. “We train hard, and in a number of ways. We sometimes go to the stadium, and sometimes out into the open country, or the forest” they say, describing their everyday sporting life alongside their time spent at school. What the teenagers have in common is their dream of one day being chosen to be the Ethiopian flag bearer, and of representing their home country at Olympic Games or world championships. And: “I would like to escape poverty through my sporting career,” Betelehem Zerihun Amesa says. And Gadisa Zawude Legese does not contradict her.
Running through Berlin’s green heart
The Berlin trip got off to an exciting for the running talents in Addis Ababa. It was their first flight, the first time they had been abroad. And they were also a little nervous about running the Berlin Half Marathon. “Not many high-rises here,” was what immediately struck Legese as they approached Berlin airport, which certainly distinguishes the German capital from Addis Ababa. In the four days they were in Berlin they singled out the Tiergarten, a park at the heart of the city, as their favourite place. It was very handily just around the corner from their hotel. “Because it’s such a great place to run in,” Amesa says. They are actually surprised by just how sporty the Berliners are. “There are people riding bicycles and running everywhere. On the roads, in the parks, and at all times of day. Totally different from at home. In that respect, European athletes have a clear advantage,” says Gadisa Zawude Legese. Despite this, it was not Europeans who won the Berlin Half Marathon.