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African Athletics Championships Draws Star-Studded Field

The African Athletics Championships are underway in Addis Ababa, featuring some of the continent's premier track and field stars. From the site of the competition, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports many athletes are using this venue as a tune-up for the Beijing Olympics.

The main stadium in Addis Ababa is packed with a highly partisan crowd for what is billed as Ethiopia's biggest-ever sports competition.

The first day's hoped-for highlight failed to materialize when reigning Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele did not appear for the 10,000-meter race. He said he had not fully recovered from his recent victory in the world cross-country championships in Scotland.

But Ethiopian runners dominated the event, finishing one-two-three.

Olympic hopeful Gebregziabher Gebremarian took gold with a time of 28 minutes, 17 seconds.

Afterward, he told VOA he was slowed by the high humidity at race time, which pushed his pace-setting final lap time above the 60 second mark.

"I am very tired. Because 13 laps in the front, it is very heavy for me. So due to this, in the last finishing line it is heavy, a little heavy for me," he said.

Gebregziabher said even though his time was slower than he expected, he hopes it will get him a ticket to the Beijing Olympics.

"I am very very proud, and I like it, because I'm starting from this country and I run for this country," he said.

Not all of the hoped-for matchups at the championships materialized. Several top Kenyan runners are not competing. A Kenyan coach said they are training for an upcoming Grand Prix competition.

World marathon record-holder Haile Gebreselassie was not named to the Ethiopian team for the event, and his participation at Beijing is still a question mark.

But for many Olympic hopefuls, these African championships are their chance to show they can compete at the international level. Sprinter Moussa Sisoku, 23, of Bamako, Mali says his goal is simply to make it to the finals of the 200-meter dash.

"My objective is the finals. And why not? It is my first big competition. It is very important for me to do well here, that helps me to have so much experience," he said.

The president of Mali's athletics federation, Idrissa Ba, is excited by the participation of 800 athletes from 42 African nations. He says this is an opportunity to show that Africa is more than just the continent of wars and famines that the rest of the world often sees.

"Each time I watch TV or radio I see bad war in Africa, famine in Africa, not food in Africa. Here is the best face for Africa, this is Africa is able to show another face. The face of unity, the face of friendship, the face for good competition, good sportsman. OK," he said.

The competition runs through Sunday, with East-African runners expected to dominate the long-distance events, and Nigeria showing its muscle in the short-distance races.