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November 01, 2017

Run, Run and run - Ethiopia's romance with sporting glory - Ethiopian Journey - Blog post no - 22

Ethiopian Athletes at the 2012, London Games  
What I am saying might come as a big surprise to a majority of my readers. Most of us have a world view that can frankly be called “navel grazing”. We are so wrapped up with ourselves and our self-belief that we are among the best in the world, if not the best!

For human indices for child development for kids under five, India’s indices are even worse than that of the Sub Saharan countries where some of the worlds’ poorest people reside. So When ever we talk about Ethiopia even among my own academic fraternity there are blank stares. THEY DON’T HAVE a CLUE ABOUT WHAT OR WHERE IS ETHIOPIA.

Happy Ethiopian Kids 
After a Titanic struggle they would come out with a jewel “oh! that country that was starving and where many people died due to famine”. Yes, there is no denying that Ethiopia suffered very badly due to the famine and had to pay a heavy price overcoming the connected stigma.

But the Ethiopia that we saw in 2002, was not that was portrayed to us by the popular media. There was poverty and poor people but they exist in India too.

The second shock is that Ethiopia has a great culture and tradition. Nowhere is it more stark than when it comes to sporting events. India is number one in games like cricket which is played by very few countries.  India also does well in sports where one person or two players play either individually or as a doubles team like Snooker, billiards and Chess.

The only world sport that India does very well is tennis, that too because of individual brilliance. Stars like Sania and Leander Paes have succeeded not due of the system. Rather they have succeeded inspite of the system. There are some bright spots appearing, but very few. We have started to do well in badminton and that too because of Pullela Gopichand Coaching Academy.

High Altitude Training
The one area where all countries try to excel is, in Summer Olympics. Olympics is watched by everyone in the world and countries strain every sinew to get noticed. Countries like USSR, East Germany and the eastern bloc countries in the 70s and 80s and China now tries everything to be in limelight. Success is seen as a sign of arriving at the world scene. It is a signal that the country is economically prosperous and making rapid strides in all spheres of life.

But we have a strange anomaly of the east African countries especially Ethiopia, Kenya, and Eritrea who excel in a big way and turn heads in amazement with their sporting achievements. At the same time, they are classified as middle to low income economies.  Let us look at some cold facts that will jolt the living daylight out of us.

India has been participating in all the Summer Olympics right from first edition in 1986 to the latest and 28th edition held in 2016 at Rio De Janerio, Brazil. India has got 9 Gold, 7 silver and 12 bronze medals for a total of 28 medals. On the face of it, the tally looks good. Hold on! We are talking about 28 Olympics in all. That is a measly one medal per Olympics. And we are the second most populous country in the world.  One medal per Olympics is unpardonable by any standards.

To make things even more bleak, out of these 28 medals, 11 medals came from field hockey and that includes 8 gold medals. That means in all our Olympic history, WE HAVE WON ONLY ONE INDIVIDUAL GOLD MEDAL.  That individual gold medal was won by Abhinav Bindra in 2008 Olympics. That is a depressing thought for all sports lovers.

Rocky path to success 
On the other side we have the case of Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, which excels in the field of sports. There are lot of theories; that the high altitude terrain and the training that the athletes get at these high altitudes are the reasons for success. Or that they are genetically predisposed to run long distances. But these reasons are over simplifying a phenomenon that is difficult to explain. Many other countries like Mexico too have high altitude.  

Young Wannabe Olympic Champions 
Other countries have athletes with who have similar low body fat and low carbohydrate food habits. But these other countries could not replicate the successes that the East African runners are churning out with monotonous regularity.

There is definitely something else that motivates East Africans to do so well and that too so consistently. Let’s look at how the nations perform. If we compare all medals won per GDP (in million US dollars): The first rank goes to Jamaica with 67 medals at 4656.011 medals per GDP in million Dollars. Ethiopia comes in at 19th Rank for 45 medals at 950.570 medals per GDP in million Dollars. 

There is only one country in Africa that does even better than Ethiopia. It is their great neighbour Kenya which comes in at 7th rank for 86 medals at 1898.036 medals per GDP in million Dollars.
If we look at only gold medals won per GDP, (million US dollars): The first rank goes to Hungary at 169 gold medals at 1294.028 per GDP, in million US dollars, Ethiopia comes in at 12th with 21 gold medals at 443.599 per GDP, in million US dollars. again only Kenya does even better coming at 8th at 25 gold medals at 551.755 per GDP, in million US dollars.
Let us look at the medal lists in terms of GDP per $1,000 per capita:

United States

Let us look at the medal lists in terms of GDP per $1,000 per capita:

United States


All statistics taken from OLYMPIC MEDALS WON BY NATIONS – A DEEPER ANALYSIS by BMALLON written on JUly 14, 2014. Url:

Bekoji, town that produced 10 gold medal winning Olympic runners 

Need I say more!. Interestingly, the majority of East Africa’s successful runners come from three mountainous districts that run beside the Great Rift Valley. In Kenya, most of the country’s successful runners come from Nandi region. In Ethiopia, most of the country’s successful runners come from Arsi and Shewa regions. The Ethiopian town of Bekoji, having a population of only 20,000 has won a whopping 16 Olympic medals and 10 of them gold.
In next post we will talk about some of the greatest world class athletes that Ethiopia has produced. And it makes for fascinating reading.

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