The Reluctant East African Distance Runner
It ought to come as a surprise that Eritrea’s only Olympic medal came in the 10,000m, a bronze won by Zerseny Tadese (above) in 2004. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Eritrea is similar to Ethiopia, the neighbour of which it had reluctantly been a part for more than forty years. However, its sporting history is quite different, having been an Italian colony for much longer, since the late nineteenth century. Influenced by Italy, it has developed a love of cycling, and races in the country (below) attract enthusiastic participation. During the 1960s, as Abebe Bikila was making his breakthrough for East African distance running, Eritreans formed the backbone of the Ethiopian cycling team.
Tadese himself dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist and of riding in the Tour de France. He won some local events but this was inadequate preparation for the longer races in Europe and so he accepted an offer to retrain as a runner, making good use of the endurance which he had already built up. He concluded that, coming from Eritrea, cycling was “not a realistic possibility” for him. At the time, the country lacked both the funds needed to buy equipment and coaching expertise. As with Azerbaijani wrestlers, passion and tradition count for little without the adequate resources to back them up.
There are two romantic myths about sport in Africa. One is that athletes emerge from the continent fully formed, with a “natural” talent for which cultivation is superfluous. The second is that poverty is a driver of success, an incentive that gives its competitors an edge. Tadese’s story reveals both of these myths for what they are. To be a cyclist, specialised training was a necessity and it proved impossible to obtain in impecunious Eritrea. One reason why poorer countries often succeed in running and fighting sports, like wrestling, is that they are forced to choose cheaper options in which to specialise. Ironically, specialisation is a good strategy for sports development and it is only in this crude economic sense that a lack of resources can unwittingly become an advantage.
Had Tadese been born ten years later, it might have been very different. There are now several professional cyclists from Eritrea, all born in the 1990s, and two of them have been competing in this year’s Tour de France. In order to properly understand what has changed, we have to explore the phenomenon that is the cycling team, MTN-Qhubeka.
Next week: How cycling administrators and a charity helped to transform African sport