Altitude training the key to Ethiopia's success
Intensive high-altitude training in the month before the Olympics is the key to Ethiopia's record haul of four gold medals at the Sydney Games, according to team officials.
Ethiopian track athletes' gold medal tally, only bettered by the United States at the Sydney Games, was crowned when Gezahenge Abera completed a great tradition for his country by winning the final event, the men's marathon.
"We train high, and compete low," said team doctor Ayalew Tilahun.
He was referring to the Ethiopian policy of withdrawing athletes from competition for a month before the Games and setting them intensive training programmes at the high-altitude team camp in Addis Ababa.
"The amount of time we spend training may not change, but the intensity -- the speed, the strength workout level -- does," said Haile Gebrselassie, who repeated his 1996 Olympic victory in the 10,000 metres.
The long preparation and hard work clearly paid off.
"When I felt tired during the race, all I could think was, 'What about all that effort, wasn't it for this?" said Abera.
Ethiopia's Australian haul of eight medals was the largest in its Olympic history but the achievement is not an overnight success story.
Four of the 25 distance runners in the team were reigning world champions on the track or cross-country, several others are current or former world medallists and many are repeat Olympians, the veterans being 1992 medallists Derartu Tulu and Fita Bayissa.
Ethiopia's Olympic tradition was begun by the barefoot Abebe Bikila's marathon victory in Rome in 1960. Bikila's repeat in 1964 and his teammate Mamo Wolde's in 1968 launched high nationwide expectations that surface every four years.
Ethiopian athletes have not disappointed, earning medals in every Games the country has attended since. Before Sydney, the largest number won was four in Moscow in 1980.
The sequence, that was interrupted by Ethiopia's political boycott of the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Olympics, was renewed by Tulu's 1992 gold medal when she became the first black African woman to win an Olympic title, inspiring a new generation of women runners.
World-record-holder Gebrselassie's domination of his events in the last decade have similarly inspired runners and the general population alike.
"When I crossed the finish line, what I envisioned was the people of Ethiopia," said Abera, 22, echoing the sentiments of Tulu and Millon Wolde, who took the women's 10,000-metre and men's 5,000-metre titles respectively the night before.
"We heard people in Addis Ababa are celebrating, driving with lights flashing and horns honking," said Gebrselassie.
Olympic campaigns are carefully planned by a task force of national team coaches and Olympic and federation representatives.
"We've been working on it since last September, as soon as we returned from the African championships," said Tilahun.
The athletes, most of whom belong to clubs associated with government institutions such as the military and police force, stop competing about one month before the Olympics and train in the Addis Ababa camp along with their coaches.
"We found that worked very well in Seville," said the Olympic committee's general secretary, Bezabih Wolde.
Ethiopia took five medals at the 1999 Seville track world championships -- two gold and three bronze -- followed by four medals at the world cross country championships in March.
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