The March issue of The Atlantic has an article about the town of Bekoji (Little Town of Champions), a farming village of ~17,000 located in the highlands of Central Ethiopia that is remarkable for producing world-class distance runners. Incredibly, runners from Bekoji have collectively won 16 Olympic medals over the last 20 years.
Bekoji’s world-class daughters and sons include Derartu Tulu, Fatuma Roba, Tiki Gelana, Mestawet Tufa, the brothers Kenenisa and Tariku Bekele, and the sisters Ejegayehu, Tirunesh, and Genzebe Dibaba.
The article considers many factors that might explain how a small, obscure village could produce more Olympic medals in distance running than the country of India (pop. 1.2 billion) has won in all Olympic sports. Ultimately, the article doesn’t find any reason that Bekoji is unique, and arrives more-or-less by default at the conclusion that it must have something to do with the local coach, Sentayehu Eshetu, who trained most of Bekoji’s most successful runners.
Strange that the article doesn’t mention the full-length movie (Town of Runners, 2011), which tells a richer, more nuanced story about Bekoji and the struggle of two teenage girls from the town, as they attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Dibabas. The movie is not pessimistic, but it does a much better job than the Atlantic article of documenting the almost insurmountable obstacles standing in the way of the young athletes. (Spoiler alert: neither girl makes it to the 2012 Olympics.)
One of my favorite scenes from the movie is when all the runners show up at the local dirt track with shovels and rakes to remove the grass and weeds that have taken over during the rainy season, spreading across half the lanes. In the movie, Coach Sentayehu bemoans the fact that a single bulldozer could do the work in an hour that takes his entire team a full day.
Somehow, that image acts as an antidote to the thinking that being born at 2800 meters in a town that no one has ever heard of is all it takes to guarantee an Olympic medal.