Once upon a time in Ethiopia

Erkki Vettenniemi
Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä

Michael Crawley
Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia
262 pages, paperback, ill
London: Bloomsbury 2020 (Bloomsbury Sport)
ISBN 978-1-4729-7529-4

Every now and then somebody somewhere publishes a book that seems to be authored by the wrong person, and a jealous thought crosses one’s mind: I should have written this book!

Out of Thin Air by anthropologist Michael Crawley is a prime example of such a book – that is, according to me. Partly a travelogue, partly a literary training diary, the outcome is simply the best interpretative introduction to contemporary Ethiopian running available in any language. “We know little about the lives and beliefs of some of the most talented athletes in the world,” Crawley argues at the outset and is perfectly right (p. 11). Even today, three decades after Ethiopia’s transformation in the wake of a protracted civil war, few Ethiopian runners express themselves in passable English, the lingua franca of modern sport. Kenyan athletes, by contrast, appear more approachable to Western observers, and they have been better served by sports scholars such as John Bale and Joe Sang whose tour de force should also have been written by me…

Unlike Bale and Sang, who studied Kenyan runners as armchair academics, Michael Crawley learnt basic Amharic, packed up his running gear, journeyed to Addis Abeba and lived among Amhara runners for more than a year. He also ventured further afield, including the Arsi zone where many of the Oromo runners hail from. While my own Abyssinian travels (1996–2012) were a bit more wide-ranging and, perhaps, more adventurous than Crawley’s, his sojourn did indeed yield just about the kind of book which I occasionally dreamt about. Also, the Scottish anthropologist proves to be a much better runner than I. A rather hilarious chapter is dedicated to his survival attempt at the National Cross-Country Championships, an event in which I never dared to think of being more than a spectator.

Put simply, Crawley’s great service is to give a voice to Ethiopian runners. Not that the descriptions of urban life, rural milieu, scenery or food are without merit, but the focus is always on the people. Among the athletes he meets and trains with, there are humorous, sullen, smart, exuberant and inscrutable individuals. In short, Ethiopian runners turn out to be no different from their Scottish, Swedish or Siberian counterparts. The oldest one is Wami Biratu, the nonagenarian grand old Oromo man of Ethiopian athletics whose son proudly displays an interview of his father published in the Finnish edition of Runner’s World (penned by yours truly). Interestingly, the prejudices encountered by Wami’s generation still exist in rural Ethiopia. “Stop, stop! Even a horse can’t run like that,” peasants yell at speedy athletes (p. 202). “Your heart will explode!” Not long ago, joggers in the so-called civilized world had to endure even worse catcalls.

If only he had come across Gérard Bruant’s little-known masterpiece Anthropologie du geste sportif! In that case, I strongly suspect, some passages of the dissertation and its by-product would have been phrased differently.

Twenty-first century athletes have prejudices and beliefs of their own, and Michael Crawley has an academically trained eye to dissect quirks of human nature. Out of Thin Air is, in fact, a by-product of his doctoral dissertation titled ‘Condition’: Energy, Time and Success Amongst Ethiopian Runners. Being unqualified to criticize anthropological studies, I merely note that the dissertation’s bibliography is short on running-related titles. Maybe it shouldn’t be, especially because the author is familiar with the French language. If only he had come across Gérard Bruant’s little-known masterpiece Anthropologie du geste sportif! In that case, I strongly suspect, some passages of the dissertation and its by-product would have been phrased differently. More than one hundred years ago, as monsieur le professeur Bruant painstakingly demonstrated, European runners courted La Forme (‘Condition’) in various manners which surely invite comparison with Crawley’s observations.

Accordingly, I find it hard to believe that the Ethiopian runners’ understanding of the “mysterious and fickle nature of ‘condition’” (p. 64) would be somehow unique, totally different from that of, say, Estonian runners. What Crawley discovered in Ethiopia – strictly speaking, among Amhara athletes – is fascinating indeed, but much more fieldwork among other running communities in other countries is needed until categorical claims can be made. Ultimately, most athletes probably perceive condition as a “mysterious entity which ‘comes and goes’ without warning” (p. 189). Athletic training is, after all, “more art than science,” to quote Crawley’s Ethiopia-related words (p. 194), and so it will be until humans are replaced by cyborgs or robots – a scenario first suggested around the time of Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930.

Another thing is that no matter how many hours he galloped alongside local athletes, the author remained a stranger in Ethiopia. This elementary fact has a certain impact on some of his musings. For example, when an Ethiopian coach bemoans the athletes’ alleged ignorance of hypoxic training, Crawley comes up with a sophisticated defence of them. Yes, they may not know how properly to explain the science of high-altitude training, but “in a [metaphorical] sense the runners are right” (pp. 96–97). What if the coach indulged in self-aggrandizement? Why shouldn’t the athletes be able to think straight, as it were? The hypoxia incident immediately reminded me of a curious discussion I had with an Ethiopian elite runner. In addition to altitude training, I suggested to him, blood values can be manipulated by other, less strenuous means such as iron supplements, EPO injections or blood transfusion. None of those options seemed to ring a bell. Really, transfusion of blood? E-p-o, what’s that? Soon afterwards another Ethiopian runner (a close friend of mine) laughed at the episode. Why, all our athletes have their blood values checked and topped up before flying abroad!

Derartu Tulu winning the 10,000m event at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. She also won gold in Barcelona 1992, and at the IAF World Championship in Edmonton 2001. Tulu is currently the president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF).

“This is Ethiopian doping,” a local runner exclaims to Crawley during a training session crisscrossing a eucalyptus forest in the outskirts of Addis Abeba. Playful zigzag running is a “specifically Ethiopian way of doing things,” Crawley maintains and is, at least partly, right (pp. 97–98). In Scandinavia, for example, cross-country running tends to be a more regulated affair due to dense undergrowth. Yet I suspect that the occurrence of zigzag jogging around the world has not been thoroughly studied, and any judgement at this point is bound to be premature. “The forest is a reflective space where runners think about their journey as athletes,” Crawley concludes (p. 102) in a solemn tone reminiscent of the starry-eyed observers of early twentieth-century Nordic running. If it’s not the food, or rustic lifestyle, the secret of Paavo Nurmi and Gunder Hägg’s swiftness must be hidden in the dark, vast forests wherein they regularly retreat. A forest is, indeed, a “rejuvenating space” in Ethiopia too (p. 104).

That said, flowery language and speculative ruminations can hardly be avoided in the sprawling field of humanities. Studying science is another matter. “Being an anthropologist is to try to be a good storyteller of other people’s stories,” Crawley asserts (p. 19), and as a storyteller he truly excels. His apparent inability to formulate dull, colorless sentences is, perhaps, a God-given talent akin to his subjects’ ability to put one leg in front of another in quick succession. Out of Thin Air is one of those books which I not only wish to have written myself (with slightly different interpretations) but also a literary feat that should set the standard for book-length narratives of seemingly exotic sporting communities. Besides, I happily agree with the aforementioned coach according to whom Ethiopian runners believe that race results are “determined by God” (p. 189). Yet no evidence is provided to support his hostile attitude towards religious fatalism which, incidentally, could be the nearest thing to a “specifically Ethiopian” way of thinking. Might it not actually protect athletes, be they Christian or Muslim, from bouts of depression after a disastrous race or a crippling injury?

Out of Thin Air is one of those books which I not only wish to have written myself (with slightly different interpretations) but also a literary feat that should set the standard for book-length narratives of seemingly exotic sporting communities.

On an almost final note, I feel obliged to point out that the author’s Ethiopian encounters do not extend to the other sex. It would have been “culturally inappropriate” for him to interview women (p. 29), which is a valid excuse but not the entire truth. Two decades ago, I secured a longish interview with the Oromo Olympic champion Derartu Tulu after some persuasion by a local journalist who also served as an interpreter. (A rare factual error in the book concerns Derartu: she was by no means “the first ever African woman” [pp. 44 and 53] to win an Olympic gold medal.) For a serious Ethiopianist, of course, interpreters are anathema, and it so happens that another anthropologist is currently busy with a PhD project of her own centered on Ethiopian women runners. So far Hannah Borenstein has published scholarly essays and a mostly accurate report touching on the savage war that has thoroughly discredited the notion of unity in the multi-ethnic empire that Ethiopia is, or was.

“Ethiopia does not have a problem with finding athletes, we have a problem of creating unity”, an Oromo coach opines in the book (p. 56), the publication of which coincided with the onset of hostilities in November 2020. One year on, the social glue that barely kept Tigrayans, Oromos, Amhara and other ethnicities together in the first place, is all but gone. What the post-Ethiopian running scene will look like is anybody’s guess; I wouldn’t be surprised if the name Ethiopia itself would fall into oblivion. Ethiopians and foreigners alike subscribed to “Ethiopian exceptionalism” (p. 13) an inordinately long time, an exceptionalism that perpetuated myths and fairy tales at the expense of plain historical facts.

Given the catastrophic context, Out of Thin Air can also be read as a swan song to the fabled story of Ethiopian running extending from Abebe Bikila (Oromo) to Letesenbet Ghidey (Tigrayan), arguably the greatest distance runner of the year 2021. “In Ethiopia, we pray a lot,” my acquaintances have assured me during the genocidal war waged by the federal government against the region of Tigray. That a sublime definition of prayer by the philosopher Simone Weil can be discovered in a book dedicated to such a mundane topic as human locomotion took this reader’s breath away. Next time a runner of Ethiopian origin crosses him/herself at the starting line I choose to believe that the gesture is meant to protect the entire landmass between Kenya and the Red Sea.

Copyright © Erkki Vettenniemi 2021


Bale, John and Sang, Joe, Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography, and Global Change. Frank Cass 1996.
Borenstein, Hannah, “Despite Conflict and Uncertainty, Women Runners from Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Becoming a Rising Force.” World Athletics, March 10, 2021 (https://www.worldathletics.org/news/feature/women-runners-from-tigray).
Bruant, Gérard, Anthropologie du geste sportif: La construction sociale du course à pied. Presses Universitaires de France 1992.
Crawley, Michael, Condition’: Energy, Time and Success Amongst Ethiopian Runners. PhD Thesis, The University of Edinburgh 2019 (https://era.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/35687).

Further reading

Gaudin, Benoit, “L’Éthiopie sportive pré-marathonienne 1924–1960.” Aethiopica 2009 (https://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/aethiopica/article/view/95/77).
Judah, Tim, Bikila: Ethiopia’s Barefoot Olympian. Reportage Press 2009.
Vettenniemi, Erkki, “The Life and Trials of Mamo Wolde.” Running Times, September 2002 (https://www.runnersworld.com/advanced/a20841394/the-life-and-trials-of-malmo-wolde/).
Vettenniemi, Erkki,  “End of Ethiopian Running.” Forumbloggen, April 10, 2021 (https://idrottsforum.org/forumbloggen/end-of-ethiopian-running/)



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