The Legendary Coach

Born in Arsi, State of Oromia, the legendary coach Haji Adilo discovered his running ability at grade nine. Soon enough, he was able to compete in regional and national championships in the late 1980s. But, he had to wait for a decade to race in international competitions. Though it was short lived, the experience helped him to show his skills to the world. However, in 2000, Haji was forced to resign from racing because of health complications. Fast forward 19 years, he has become one of the few successful long distance running coaches chosen by many elite athletes. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw sat down with him to learn what makes the legendary coach tick.

Haji Adilo was destined for great career that began at the same place where the great Haile Gebresilassie started. He even managed to hop on the same bus that brought Haile to Addis Ababa and conquer the running world. The youngster in Arsi, Chilalo, did not know he was going to be in athletics until ninth grade. It was just suddenly that he found himself among the best runners of his school.

His early career was all exciting and fast developing. A promising performance at the school competition took him to regional and national championships later in 1987. “Since I came from remote area, I had no privilege of following sport programs on the media on a regular basis. But, I used to listen to stories about Abebe Mekonnen and Belayneh Densamo on radio”

In 1989, Haji joined an athletics initiative by Ethiopian Airlines. A year later, he was recruited by Omedla Sport Club where he stayed for the next 17 years. As part of the generation that suffered from having a rare chance to compete outside of Ethiopia, his running career was generally restricted to local competitions. He had to wait eight years to travel for his first race overseas.

Haji has few international titles in his CV. He won a marathon race in Istanbul, Turkey; and claimed the back to back victory later in Austria. But, when he thought his long awaited chance to shine in international stages had finally arrived, an incident that turned his career to a tragic end happened.

Just four days before his planned travel for another international race in Austria, Haji felt sick shortly after having raw meat with friends. He was hospitalized because his health deteriorated instantly. “I am sorry to say this, but sometimes doctors …” Haji pauses. “Well, I had a surgery which I still think was inappropriate in the first place. The doctor, who was an intern, believed I had a serious intestinal illness.” says the 48 years old man who still thinks he was only sick because he ate a chilly souse prepared from peeper and lemon. “That was not only inappropriate surgery. It was a surgery not successfully done. To correct the complications, I was operated again after a week. That cost me my career.”

Haji wanted to deal with it and hold on to running. But he had to listen to his body. So he retired in 2000.
A piece of advice from a Frenchman inspired the gutted Haji to dream again about a new beginning. “He told me to consider working as a manager to athletes. As an athlete myself, I understand how my generation struggled to find competition overseas. So I really wanted to engage in it. He requested me to select five athletes for a competition he facilitated abroad. [Luckily], the athletes I recruited succeeded. This was how my new career began as an athlete manager” says Haji.

The new job Haji embarked on was just more than a job for him. In the last decade alone, Haji managed to break in and dominate the athletics coaching and business in Ethiopia. He now represents Elite Sport Management, an international sport management company. The company represents well over 100 track and field athletes in Ethiopia and neighboring countries. The company arranges overseas races where emerging athletes get rare opportunities to compete among elite athletes. Haji recruits and prepares the runners; and later take five percent commission from the award athletes get.

He is also currently coaching atBreaking2, a project by Nike to break the two-hour barrier for marathon. This is indeed among the major success he ever had achieved in the career. His trainees include elite athletes such as Lelisa Desisa, Eluid Kipchoge of Kenya and Zeresenay Tadesse of Eritrea.

Now, most Ethiopian athletes wish to work with him to be successful especially in marathon. Even more high-profile athletes believe that joining his team would make them better. The legend Tirunesh Dibaba works with Haji since she became a marathoner. Lelisa Desisa, Feyisa Lelisa, Mare Dibaba, Mohammed Aman, Selemon Barega, Senebere Teferi, and Samuel Tefera are among the notable stars that have worked with him.

Haji’s proven successes in management have won him the hearts of elite athletes from abroad too. In January, Haji also received a request from Chinese Athletics Federation to guide their runners for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He officially agreed to prepare the Chinese national team of long-distance runners for a “lucrative service fee”. Nine Chinese athletes started the preparation for Yokyo in Ethiopia to take advantage of the high altitude. Recently the team leader confirmed that the athletes have achieved incredible progress under the Ethiopian coach.

Preparing the foreign athletes who will race against his own country does not worry Haji. “Having more competitors would not make us weak. [Rather], it would inspire us to work better. And it would be a great opportunity to have more rivals in our favorite disciplines. Races like 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters would stay longer in the track if the world sees more competitors from other countries. ”

Married to the Olympian Zemzem Ahmed, the father of four wants to build a nationwide athletics family where runners camp near the talent areas. “Coaching and preparing athletes is not just about knowing tactics. It is also about understanding the athletes. I lived for it.”

8th Year • July.16 - Aug.15 2019 • No. 76


Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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