Age is just a number indeed

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Anyone remember a reigning cross-country world champion by name? Category doesn’t matter now, anything goes – senior women, junior women, senior men, junior men?

I thought so. Yet the most recent edition of the championships was held this month, under Australian sun. Is it because the winners tend to be Africans that they so often escape one’s memory? Maybe, maybe not. At least the junior champions deserve to be forgotten as they rarely, if ever, are bona fide juniors.

(That said, I have come to believe that Kenenisa Bekele, the greatest cross-country runner ever, was indeed a junior athlete when he medalled in two age categories in 2001. When I managed to interview Kenenisa the following year in Addis Abeba, he appeared to be in his late twenties but talked like a timid teenager. For further proof, check his 2022 London Marathon result – hardly a performance of somebody in his late forties.)

Masters running, by contrast, is something entirely else. Take Wami Biratu, for example. I mean, let’s talk precisely about him, the grand old man of Ethiopian running, Abebe Bikila’s contemporary and the person to whom belongs the moral victory of the 1960 Olympic marathon. As any Ethiopian of a certain age can confirm, Wami Biratu had regularly beaten Abebe Bikila prior to the Rome games, and it was only because he fell sick at the last minute that the younger Ethiopian became a household name across the globe.

Wami Biratu exercising at home, January 2023.

Abebe Bikila passed away in his early forties (if his official age is anything to go by). Had he not succumbed to a mysterious pox in August 1960, Wami Biratu would have been crowned as the Olympic marathon champion in his early forties. And he has not – words fail me, so I resort to plain, pedestrian English – he has still not stopped running.

My friendship with Wami Biratu and his family goes back to 2004. The National Museum of Ethiopia honoured the octogenarian runner and national treasure with an exhibition which was a genuine revelation to me. To this day, I cannot say whether I had previously come across his name in the track history tomes that I used to devour. Ten years passed, and I stopped visiting Ethiopia. Almost another decade later, just a few weeks ago, Wami Biratu hugged me at his home as firmly as the biblical father must have hugged the prodigal son.

What’s the secret of Wami Biratu’s longevity, I asked his son after having marvelled at the supple senior’s calisthenic exercise for a few minutes. God, Jagemma Wami translated his father’s reply from Amharic into English, faith in God and healthy food. Not the Ethiopian staple food injera, though, but milk and honey, I learned.

Students of sport, history and health sciences: please pay a visit to Addis Abeba and carry out proper research into Wami Biratu’s truly amazing life and longevity. Pray with him, enjoy a cup of milk, dip your bread into honey and after having exhausted serious topics, ask about the build-up to the Rome games and whether he still regrets being denied Olympic glory. After all, Abebe Bikila couldn’t quite handle the fame that befell him.

At this point I should probably add that Wami Biratu will next turn 107, God willing.

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