ASMARA (Reuters) - Eritrea’s long-distance runner Zersenay Tadese was such an innocent at his maiden international competition that he missed the starting pistol.
“I thought it would be like home, when the flag goes down. I didn’t know I had to start when a gun went off,” the country’s best-known athlete said, chuckling at memories of the 2002 world cross country championship in Dublin.
Zersenay was also handicapped by over-size shoes for that first big race, yet still managed a respectable 30th.
He went on to take gold in the same competition five years later, in Kenya, in a career that has won him the love of a nation and let Eritrea hold its head high next to more illustrious east African running powers Kenya and Ethiopia.
His greatest moment was bringing home Eritrea’s first Olympic medal — a bronze in the 10,000 metres at Athens 2004.
“To see my country’s flag rise, that was amazing. Yes, I have come a long way,” said Zersenay, who has also won the IAAF world half-marathon championship three times.
No wonder heads turn wherever he goes in Eritrea — Africa’s youngest nation and one of its smallest, with just 4 million people. Children clap and shout greetings as Zersenay trains on the hilltops outside the capital Asmara.
“His popularity in Eritrea is believed to be more than that of David Beckham in Britain,” one local magazine wrote adoringly.
Like many of Africa’s great runners, Zersenay’s roots are rural and humble. He tended livestock as a barefoot boy in the village of Adi Bana in southern Eritrea and laid the foundations for his running career getting to and from the 14 kms to school.
“For about two years, I would run from my house to school every morning. Coming home, I would normally walk, though sometimes too I would run the full 14 kms back,” the 27-year-old told Reuters at his home in Asmara.
“Many of us runners come from these backgrounds. It is basically the lifestyle. If you say to yourself you can do something, you have the strength and will to do it.”
Despite the school-run training, Zersenay’s sporting life began as a promising cyclist, another popular sport in Eritrea, until a row with team mates cut that short.
Spotted by a local teacher, he then turned to running.
Right now, the Eritrean is training to run the 10,000 metres in the world championships in Berlin in August and a half-marathon in Britain later in the year.
“My goal in the future is to break the world record for the half-marathon,” he said. “You need luck on the day though.”
He plans to run the marathon at the 2012 London Olympics after finishing fifth in the 10,000 metres in Beijing last year.
Whether he brings home more triumphs or not, Zersenay is delighted to have put Eritrea on the map and helped boost a fledgling athletics movement.
“Kenya and Ethiopia have been racing for 60 or 70 years, but us only since 2004,” he said. “Back then, we were four or five. Now there are 300 to 500 people you see every morning jogging and training. That is massive progress.”
Facilities are developing slowly in one of Africa’s smallest economies. Zersenay still trains on a track of dirt, or out in the countryside, but Asmara is soon to unveil its first asphalt track.
Married at the end of last year to a girl he met at school, Zersenay has bought a house in the capital and drives a smart, black 4x4 that looks flash next to the more humble vehicles usually seen on the streets here.
His home is packed with trophies and pictures of him with personalities ranging from Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, who he bumped into at the Beijing Olympics.
But Zersenay has no pretensions, graciously serving an Eritrean stew on local “njera” bread to visitors from Reuters.
“He is a great man. He has done great things for this nation,” said friend and running mate Efraim Ogbegbral.
“After Athens in 2004, many more athletes started, myself included. He taught me everything. He is my friend and coach.”