Popular Zersenay is Eritrea's Beckham

Tue May 26, 2009 9:31pm EDT
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By Andrew Cawthorne

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 meters 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.   Continued...

<p>Eritrea's long-distance runner Zersenay Tadesse stretches after his training session in the capital Asmara, May 21, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Cawthorne</p>