Ethiopian athletes return to rapturous welcome

August 28, 2008

They were then paraded on a convoy of black, open-top Cadillacs amid chanting fans that crammed almost every street pavement that stretched for a few miles.

“Kenenisa and Tirunesh were absolutely fantastic in Beijing. They really deserve such welcoming,” one fan said of the enthusiasm shown in the athletics-mad nation.

A ceremony was held afterwards at the 30,000-capacity National Stadium on the city centre where an overly-packed crowd had gathered since 7 AM (1000GMT) and braved rainfall to attend the event.

“Our athletes have placed the country among the elite of countries that excel in athletics,” Ethiopia’s Minister of youth and sport, Aster Mamo, said during the event.

“We, as a country and government, are very proud of the achievements,” she added.

Moments earlier, Kenenisa said he was overwhelmed by the crowd’s affectionate response.

“It was a special moment. The fans have repaid our success with their enthusiastic welcome,” he said, as dozens of cameramen hounded the 26-year old track star for photographs.

Ethiopia finished 18th in Beijing with four gold, one silver and two bronze at the final medals standing, a massive improvement from Athens where they finished 28th with two gold, three silver and two bronze.

The country’s success story, was however a tale of their two athletes.

Tirunesh Dibaba, also known as “the baby-faced assassin”, became the first woman in Olympic history to have won a long-distance double when she produced her traditional final lap burst to grab the 5,000m race on August 22, a week after winning the 10,000m.

Compatriot Kenenisa also repeated the feat a day later and become the first man to have taken both titles since 1980, when another Ethiopian, Miruts Yifter, won in Moscow.

But the Ethiopians did not forget a mention of their icon Haile Gebrselassie, who chose to compete on the 10,000m rather than the marathon and finished a disappointing sixth.

They gave him a rapturous cheer as his name was announced in the stadium.

“Let’s not forget that he had opted out of the marathon due to reasonable reasons, and Kenenisa had also benefitted from Haile’s tactics”, a young fan told AFP, refering to Haile’s role during the 10,000 win.