ASELA, Ethiopia (Reuters) - A full moon dimly lights an Ethiopian hillside as almost 300 teenage athletes shiver in the 6 a.m. chill, some springing into the air to keep warm while others show off elastic stretching positions.
But a coach slowly shakes his head and says that in a few hours it will be time to stop as a scorching sun makes it too tough for the youngsters to train, something that was once unthinkable.
These ridges outside the southern town of Asela have long provided a cool high-altitude training ground for the giants of Ethiopian athletics such as all-time great Haile Gebrselassie.
But now Asela’s aspiring athletes fear global warming is affecting even the lush green highlands of Ethiopia, threatening what was a perfect climate for producing world-beaters.
Far away from Asela, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to thrash out a plan on how to counter climate change and come up with a post-Kyoto treaty deal to curb harmful emissions.
But as the U.N. conference starts, Asela is getting hotter and, in another 20 years, it may be too hot to train at all.
Gebrselassie, who has broken 26 world records and was born 20 minutes away, can scarcely believe how Asela’s climate has changed over the years.
“Three weeks ago I was in Asela and I jogged three kilometres,” he said in the capital, Addis Ababa. Training with fellow star Derartu Tulu, he thought he was going for an easy run but that’s not how it turned out.
“It was around 9.30 a.m. and you don’t believe it ... I was sweating. I asked myself, ‘Is this Asela? The place where we were training before? Yes it is’,” he told Reuters.
In his gym in Addis Ababa, Gebrselassie said that when he was a teenager he could not have wished for a better climate as he used to run 10 km to school and back. Now he worries that nobody will replace him.
“How important is athletics to Ethiopia?” he asked, as two Japanese tourists peered through the gym’s window for a glimpse of the legend.
“It’s important economically, it’s everything. When you think about Ethiopia, you think about athletics. This is like soccer in Brazil. We need to keep this tradition.”
Asela has a legendary pedigree. Kenenisa Bekele, world and Olympic record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres comes from nearby. The biggest hotel in the small town — and easily the plushest — is owned by and named after Tulu, the first African woman to win an Olympic gold.
But the country’s meteorological agency told Reuters that average temperatures in the region around Asela have risen by up to 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1986.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will represent 52 African countries at Copenhagen and has already threatened to walk out if dissatisfied with the deal. Some climate experts have called for rich countries to pay up to $100 billion annually to counter the impact of global warming in Africa.
The Ethiopian government has opened a training centre for 300 of the country’s most promising 16 to 20-year-old runners just five minutes from Asela.
From 5 a.m., coaches circle the dormitory housing, using piercing whistles to wake their young charges so they have a chance to train before the sun comes out. By 6 a.m. the fields around the centre are dotted with potential future stars.
Aspiring sprinters thunder along in groups of three, the ground gently vibrating in their wake. Marathon runners weave around trees in an adjoining forest as coaches urge them on. The speeding teenagers overtake farmers in donkey traps.
“I want to be a famous marathon runner like Tirunesh Dibabe and represent Ethiopia,” says a shy Senait Kebede, 19, in between the workout sessions.
“When I watch our athletes on the television and listen to their news it makes me want to do it. I want to live a luxurious lifestyle like our famous athletes.”