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Against the Odds

Ethiopian runner Mohammed Aman’s rise to racing fame.

FABRICE COFFINI / GETTY

To watch Mohammed Aman run is like seeing someone fulfill their life’s purpose, to do what they were born to do. Yet for the early part of Mohammed’s life, running seemed to fall far from his ordained path; in fact, until the age of 12, Mohammed’s greatest ambition was not to become the first Ethiopian athlete to ever win the World Athletics Championship in the 800-meter race, but rather to teach math just like his father, a hero of sorts in his hometown of Assela. His mother also taught kindergarten and raised eight children, so he came by his vocational aspirations honestly.

But in 2006, a seemingly trivial, typical grade-school event ultimately changed Mohammed’s life: His best friends signed up for athletics training without telling him. Feeling betrayed, Mohammed — then in fifth grade — went immediately to the training project office to sign up, only to find that the registration period had ended. Impressed by his stubborn persistence, the coach permitted Mohammed to train alongside the other athletes but not as a registered member. As the days passed, however — and Mohammed started beating the members in preparatory contests — he began to draw the attention of the project’s managers, and he quickly rose from the dust to represent Assela in national contests. 

He won his first national championship in the 400-meter race just two years after starting to run — a victory that paved the way for Mohammed to join one of the country’s elite athletics clubs, Mugher Cement Sport Club. Afterward, he started focusing on medium-distance races, despite the lack of support he received from naysayers pointing to Ethiopia’s lack of a strong track record in either short- or medium-distance running. 

“Everybody was telling me that I had to follow in the footsteps of other athletes and join the long-distance runners’ group,” says the now 22-year-old Mohammed. “Again, convincing people at the athletics federation to allow me to compete internationally was a challenge.”

Against all the odds, however, Mohammed in 2009 managed to run his first 800m international race in Nigeria. “I was very thin and young, and many of the athletes from other African countries thought I was the coach’s son and that I was there for vacation,” he recalls, adding that when they realized he was there to compete, they were “amazed,” given his physique. Though he placed sixth, the contest was nonetheless eye-opening, encouraging Mohammed to keep training and dreaming big. In that same year, at the African Youth Championships held in Mauritius, Mohammed won a gold medal for his country in the 800m distance. 

“You get this chance once in four years, and not becoming successful at this event is heartbreaking.”
Mohammed Aman

Following his victory in Mauritius, Mohammed went on to win the 2010 World Youth Olympics 1000m in Singapore; a silver medal at the 2011 IAAF World Youth Championships 800m in Lille, France; and the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships 800m in Istanbul.

Inspired by these results, Mohammed put all his focus on the 2012 London Olympics — as did all Ethiopians, it seemed, who had never seen their country take an Olympic gold medal in a medium distance. But although he finished the semifinal with the fastest time, Mohammed unfortunately placed last in the final race.

“The Olympics is such a great event where every athlete wants to become successful,” says Mohammed. “You get this chance once in four years, and not becoming successful at this event is heartbreaking.” 

Yet only one week later, filled with frustration and regret, Mohammed once again met many of the same competitors on a track in Zurich, Switzerland — running a race in which Mohammed not only won but also registered his till-then best time in the 800m: 1:42:53. From there, he went on to win 13 consecutive races in 2013, including the World Championships in Moscow. These results brought Mohammed an influx of prizes and awards, including the IAAF Diamond League trophy and US$40,000.

In 2014, however — after winning the World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland — a hamstring injury began to negatively affect Mohammed’s performance. Now three years later, eager to get back to his former status, the 22-year-old athlete completes rigorous daily training exercises at the Addis Ababa stadium and on the outskirts of the capital. And though he remains committed to winning medium-distance races ahead, Mohammed also plans to become a long-distance runner, hoping to lessen the strain on his hamstring.

“After five years, you may see me running a marathon or 5000m,” he says. Beyond that, he hopes to also eventually become a coach — taking his life’s path full circle, back to teaching of a different sort. 

Yoseph Mekonnen is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa. He has covered major Ethiopian sports events and personalities over the years.