ADDIS ABABA, July 7 – On the concrete tiers of Meskel Square, a vast rallying point in Addis Ababa, armies of aspiring athletes scamper around despite biting, pre-dawn cold as they wait for their trainers to arrive.Across the plaza, rigorous practice routines are well underway under a giant screen where track greats Kenenisa Bekele’s and Tirunesh Dibaba’s famous double wins at the Beijing Olympics were relayed live to thousands of ecstatic fans.
"The earlier you wake up the better," said 17-year-old Tirusew Wolde, before turning on a short dash down an asphalt pavement.
For Tirusew, images of a grinning Dibaba wrapped in an Ethiopian flag after her show-stealing victory last year offer motivation to brave the early-morning chill.
But he conceded that a major incentive for most young runners is the desire to rack up riches as they’ve seen Ethiopian track stars do in recent years.
"Of course I want to," said Dissassa Jifar, when asked whether or not he was spurred on by the possibility of boosting his bank account.
"Look at them. Not only have they succeeded on the track but also off it. They are leading very comfortable lives," he said in between shivers.
In this ancient capital, the past 10 years has seen a boom during which shimmering office blocks and high-rise hotels have sprung up thanks to a strong economy, which emerged after decades of dictatorial mismanagement.
Star athletes like Bekele, Dibaba and Haile Gebrselassie, who all grew up in rural poverty, are using their winnings to build nest eggs for the day when they hang up their running shoes.
Just a few blocks from where Dissassa trained, a recently built office complex owned by the legendary Gebrselassie has changed the skyline of a once rundown district.
The 36-year-old Gebrselassie is probably the best example of an Ethiopian rags-to-riches story. He has come a long way from the deprivation he grew up in in the fertile Arsi region.
After hitting the track, "the little prince", as he is known here, has never looked back.
From sports marketing to cinema to the hotel industry — his new five-star hotel will be inaugurated next year — the veteran runner’s business empire is now estimated to be worth more than 500 million birr (50 million dollars, 36 million euros).
His heir-apparent Kenenisa Bekele, who holds both world records in the 5,000 metres and the 10,000m, has followed a similar path.
Apart from a four-star hotel in Addis Ababa awaiting completion this year and numerous office blocks in other towns, Bekele announced last year that he was going to bankroll construction of a 10 million-dollar sports complex outside the capital, with the aim of hosting international tournaments and boosting the country’s image.
— ‘They haven’t forgotten their country’ —
"They are exemplary. They haven’t forgotten their country after all the success," Adam Tadesse, general secretary of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, told AFP.
According to one local estimate, athletes pour more than 15 million dollars worth of investments each year into this impoverished Horn of Africa nation, where the per capita income is less than 200 dollars.
The government, eager for more investments, has given generous tax cuts to successful athletes for the past 15 years.
"Not only are they ensuring their financial safety, it’s also good for the country in economic terms," said Elshadai Negash, an athletics expert from the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).
Ethiopia is eager to cajole its athletes to spend more money in the sport and capitalise on the success it reaped on and off the track with last year’s African Athletics Championships.
It was the first time Ethiopia ever hosted the games, which attracted capacity crowds and drew praise for their organisation.
No matter how great their motivation, Ethiopia’s aspiring athletes today face something their idols never had to experience in their early years: spending curbs.
Governing sports bodies throughout Africa have seen their budgets sapped due to lack of funding, according to experts, and a handful of continental competitions have already been cancelled this year.
Even cash-rich nations are said to be minimizing their expenditures.
"The big players will always remain attractive, but it has become difficult for newcomers to find competitions since most organisers have lost money," an Ethiopian agent told AFP on condition of anonymity.
All but a handful of Ethiopia’s numerous athletics teams are owned by state-run companies, which continue to provide incomes in hard times like these.
But Elshadai warned that even this cannot be sustained.
"In one way it is an advantage, but as the crisis deepens the corporations will cut their spending, which means they can no longer hire runners," he said.
The likes of Dissassa and Tirusew, however, are more than determined to make the grade despite the challenges.
"I’ll give it my best shot," said 25-year-old Dissassa, who, by Bekele’s standards, would be characterised as a late developer.
"You never know what happens tomorrow."