ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, June 15 – Ethiopian running great Kenenisa Bekele has railed against his “unfair” exclusion from the country’s marathon team for the Rio Olympics, adding to the growing discontent at the athletics federation’s management.
The 34-year-old Bekele, a triple Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion over 5,000 and 10,000m, had been hoping to revive his Olympic career in August over the longer distance.
He won his first outing over the marathon in Paris in 2014, but suffered an achilles injury that put paid to the 2015 season. After that long lay-off, Bekele made his comeback with a third-placed finish in this year’s London marathon after just six weeks training.
But it was not enough to sway selectors, who instead picked Tesfaye Abera, Lemi Berhanu and Feyisa Lilesa for the men’s team.
“This is not fair,” stormed Bekele, also the most successful cross-country runner of all time with six long-course and five short-course titles between 2002 and 2008.
“The rules were never announced. They took the marathon times from the last two years back but they didn’t let the athletes know of this rule.”
The president of the Ethiopian athletics federation said Bekele had simply not ticked enough boxes despite his vaunted past.
“Kenenisa has ranked number seven according to his points,” Alebachew Nigusse said.
“We wish he had more points so he could be included on the team because of his fame and past trophies, but we can’t do anything, he couldn’t meet our criteria this year.”
Bekele received a vote of confidence from fellow running legend Haile Gebreselassie, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and four-time world champion over 10,000m.
“If I was on the selection committee my first choice would be Kenenisa,” Gebreselassie told AFP.
“An athlete like Kenenisa, it doesn’t matter if he wins or not. Morally his presence means a lot for the rest of the group. That’s why I wish to see him in Rio.”
Bekele’s exclusion has unearthed athletes’ general discontent with the federation.
Last week around 100 athletes and coaches protested in front of Addis Ababa’s main stadium against the body overseeing Ethiopian athletics.
“A lot of athletes are complaining,” Bekele said. “We’re not happy with the way the federation is managed.”
Fikir Yilikal, a long-time sports journalist for Radio Bisrat, added: “I have never seen an organised protest such as this one from the athletes.
“The connection between the federation and the athletes is a problem. The current leadership is not fit to lead.”
Yilikal said there were doubts not just over the selection for the Olympics but also training programmes.
“I don’t expect glamourous results in Rio as in past Olympics,” he lamented.