Freakish air credited by coach for success of Ethiopia's distance runners, such as Tariku Bekele

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports
Tariku Bekele of Ethiopia competes in in Men's 10,000m (Getty Images)
Tariku Bekele of Ethiopia competes in in Men's 10,000m (Getty Images)

LONDON – There is a tiny town in Ethiopia, several hours or several days from the capital, Addis Ababa, depending on how one travels. It is a place where legends are born, generation after generation, through a combination of a remarkable old coach and a freakish climate that produces air quality perfect for distance runners.

Tariku Bekele's performance in finishing third in the men's 10,000 meters came 24 hours after Tirunesh Dibaba won the gold in the women's equivalent. She also won two gold medals in Beijing.

Back in Bekoji, Ethiopia, the man who discovered both of those athletes watched with satisfaction at the house of a friend. Sentayehu Eshetu might have taken in the action from the comfort of his own home, but with a daily salary of less than $4, he cannot afford a television.

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Eshetu has devoted his life to developing great runners. He also developed Bekele's brother, Kenenisa, who finished fourth in the 10,000 meters after winning the event in Beijing, and two other Olympic champions from earlier Games.

"Everyone runs here," he told Yahoo! Sports in a recent telephone interview. "There is not much else to do."

But despite the incredible achievement of developing a conveyor belt of success from a town of just a few thousand people, Eshetu refuses to take credit. There is the air, you see, pure and clean, but so thin that it makes visitors gasp.

When Eshetu pushes his athletes, most of them teenagers, up the hills that surround Bekoji for yet another round of training, the air consistency sometimes makes them ill to the point of vomiting. However, it also builds an aerobic capacity in their lungs that would not be possible under other conditions.

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"If you can run in Bekoji, you can run anywhere," Eshetu said. "Even the ones that left here when they were young, the early training they did here still helps them. It builds their lungs and their muscles. And it makes their minds strong. You learn to master the pain and how to control your breathing. The weather here teaches you to take in exactly how much oxygen you need, no more, no less."

The altitude of Bekoji is more than 10,000 feet and its most of its people have little in the way of material possessions. Local children help their parents tend crops and cattle and get around town on foot. Only a handful of residents own a car.

And they run.

They run until they are good enough to leave, which is what Kenenisa Bekele did, followed soon after by younger brother Tariku. So did Dibaba, and before her, there were 1992 and 2000 10,000-meter winner Derartu Tulu and 1996 women's marathon champion Fatuma Roba.

There is no professional track and field structure in Bekoji, and the only option for youngsters seeking a wage is to relocate to bigger cities, where they can be paid by competitive club teams. And from there, a select handful will make it to the Olympics.

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"They have to go, and then another group comes through and we make more athletes," Eshetu said. "They remember us. Kenenisa came back and thanked us when he won his first Olympic gold. It is wonderful to see or hear about how successful they have become. And then it is wonderful to wake up the next day and wonder which of the young runners will be the next great one."

Tariku Bekele's bronze was his first Olympic medal and came at the end of a fiercely contested race over 25 laps. Great Britain's Mo Farah took gold with a ferocious sprint over the final lap, and his training partner Galen Rupp of the United States came in second.

But a small town in Ethiopia still had cause for pride, and it waits for the next crop of champions to emerge through that rare air, under the guidance of a wise old coach.

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