When Gezahegne Abera was 12 years old, his teacher gave a lesson on Abebe Bikila, who ran barefoot to win the marathon in the 1960 Summer Games, becoming the first black African to claim Olympic gold. Abera, who would later emulate his hero, listened in amazement. How can someone run for 42km, he asked himself as he sat in class. And without shoes?
“Those were the questions that revolved in my head,” he says. Two years later, Abera started finding the answers. His new school was 12km from home, and he could not board as he had to work on the family farm in the afternoons. So he started jogging there and back.
Within seven years he had won his first major marathon in Japan, earning a spot on Ethiopia’s team for the Sydney Olympics. Abera was immediately taken with Australia, and loved being in the Olympic village with sportspeople from all over the world. There was not much pressure on him to win. He was only 22, very young for an elite marathoner, and had only run a couple of 26.2-mile races. “I was inexperienced, but as a young man I also had the courage and physical attributes to go for gold,” he says. “I had never run just to participate, I always ran for victory.”
The race began in windy conditions. Abera hung back in the pack to protect himself from the elements, but after 19 miles disaster struck. Bumping into another runner, he tripped and cut his knee. It could have been the end of his dream, but after brief treatment he managed to rejoin the leaders. With a few miles left, he was alone at the front with a Kenyan, Erick Wainaina, and his Ethiopian teammate, Tesfaye Tola. From training together, he knew he was stronger than Tola. And when Wainaina failed in his attempt to sprint away, Abera knew the gold was his. He won by 20 seconds, becoming the youngest men’s marathon winner since 1932.
“There is no word in the dictionary to express how that felt,” Abera says, from Addis Ababa. Then he laughs. “But there was one tiny disappointment. When I ran my victory lap I could only find a small flag. I wanted to wrap myself in a big flag!” Asked how winning the Olympic gold changed his life he says in Amharic: “In what way didn’t it change? For me, for my family, everything was different. It’s not just financial. You become very, very famous in Ethiopia, but also in the whole world. You join the list of those great people who won Olympic titles.”
Following his victory, Abera won the marathon at the World Championships in 2001, becoming the first man to hold both titles. He travelled to Athens in 2004, but as a non-athlete, providing advice and support to the Ethiopian team, which included his wife, Elfenesh Alemu, who finished fourth in the women’s marathon. Abera says that were it not for injury, he could have defended his title - as Bikila did in 1964. “I had beaten Stefano Baldini [who won gold in 2004] in London the year before, so I think I could have won in Greece.”
Though Abera’s career was cut short due to repeated injuries, it was also lucrative. Today he and Alemu run their own hotel and property development business. He believes his legacy was to show other young athletes they could succeed against better known rivals in the Olympics – if they prepared mentally. “The Olympics is not like any other competition. You have to believe in yourself, use team tactics and mind games if you have to. That’s my message to this generation.”