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Worshipping Of Ethiopia's Long Distance Runners

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It’s before dawn, but Meskel Square, Addis Ababa’s grand centrepiece, is already busy. The long-haul buses leave from here before the sun rises: 11 hours to Dire Dawa; 12 hours to Bahir Dar; 50 hours to Aksum. In the darkness, lit by a few flickering streetlights and the occasional high beams of passing cars, stand already-weary passengers, their luggage at their feet.

I hide in the shadows, self-conscious. I’m not taking a bus. I’m waiting for the other runners to arrive – the dozens and dozens of Ethiopians who, famously, use the square to train every morning, running back and forth across its vast, semi-circular amphitheatre.

The track starts at the bottom and you work your way up. Running from one side to the other, without skipping a level, you’ll run 26 miles. A marathon.

If east Africa is the capital of long-distance running, then Meskel Square is its high temple.

Ethiopia and Kenya are to long distance running what New Zealand is to rugby, or Jamaica is to sprinting: utterly dominant. In Ethiopia, support for the sport is almost religious in its fervour. You know the names: Abebe Bikila, Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele and, of course, the emperor himself, Haile Gebrselassie. At one point or another, they all trained on the Meskel Square steps, and Ethiopia’s new crop of Olympic hopefuls still do.