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.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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1 Response to Bekoji

  1. Haftom says:

    one day you will see me to become a great runner in the world, & i will cheer up my country, Ethioia. & i will work hard more & mere.and i want to coach me like coach SENTAYEHU ESHETU. he great and bless coach in the world.. i hope if he coach me..God please help me, to become great runner in world…

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