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Ethiopia Celebrates Running With Great Race

Elite runners dominated the field in Sunday's Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the event is also a celebration of Ethiopia's emergence as a world power in the field of running.

The winners have long since crossed the finish line, but no matter. It is well past one hour since the start of Africa's biggest road race, and a sea of red T-shirts is still visible as far as the eye can see up one of the Ethiopian capital's widest boulevards.

The Great Ethiopian Run, founded eight years ago by the legendary Haile Gebreselassie is more than a race. It is a statement of national pride, and the red T-shirt is a badge of honor that will be seen on the city's streets for months, maybe years to come.

It is also a chance for Ethiopians to make a political statement. This year the dominant theme was Obama fever, 14-year-old Hiruy Giday held aloft a picture of the American president-elect as he crossed the finish line.

"Obama will be able to make change. They are just happy because it is the first American president, and they are just happy to finally have change in the presidency," he said.

Vendors stood along the route of the run selling 8X10 color photographs of the first black American president, and groups of runners chanted O-BA-MA. Other chants heard along the route called for release of the jailed singing star Teddy Afro, seen by many young Ethiopians as a symbol of opposition to the government.

For others, it was just a chance to enjoy a good run, or like 62-year-old finisher Tamrat Beyene, to get out and mingle with the people. When asked what he talked about, the answer was predictable.

"We are expecting good relations with America at the time of Obama's presidency. Diplomatic relations will be good and I hope they will help us with our progressive development effort, and I hope they will give care for the Horn of Africa," said Beyene.

This year's race drew top runners from other African countries, and from places as far away as Sweden. But invariably the winners are Ethiopians. In this running-mad but impoverished country, doing well in this competition is a statement that a runner is ready for the big time, ready to compete with the world's best, like Ethiopia's Olympic gold medalists Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele.

And it is a chance to take home a veritable fortune. First prize is $2,500, a couple years' salary for the average Ethiopian.