Ethiopian Israeli runner takes unlikely route to Beijing

HADERA, Israel (AP) When Ayele Seteng arrived in Israel in 1991 with thousands of other frail Ethiopian immigrants, he was looking to flee famine and make a better life for his family. Now, he is an unlikely Olympic athlete.

After some strange twists of fate that began with an unexpected weight gain, Seteng is heading to the Beijing Games as Israel’s brightest running star. The marathoner, a father of eight, perhaps will be the oldest athlete to participate in an Olympic race.

No one is quite sure how old he actually is. Seteng claims he is 46, but his birth certificate indicates he’s seven years older.

“What does age matter?” Seteng asked. “People say, ‘How do you do it?’ But so far it hasn’t bothered me.”

Seteng arrived in Israel on May 24, 1991, as part of “Operation Solomon,” when Israel airlifted some 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in a massive, single-day military operation as civil war raged in famine-plagued Ethiopia.

His evolution into an elite Olympic athlete began shortly after his arrival. Introduced to a new high-starch Israeli diet, he suddenly gained weight. Living in cramped surroundings, he also walked less than he was accustomed to in his native Gondor, a mountainous region of Ethiopia.

So he started jogging – something he had never done before. Before long, he was taking part in road races across Israel and blazing past the local competition.

“I started running to lose weight,” said the slender Seteng, who weighs 123 pounds. “I just ran all the time and one day someone saw me and said, ‘If you run for real, you can make a lot of money.'”

That hasn’t happened yet. For years he took part in makeshift races to make ends meet. In 2002, Shlomo Ben-Gal, chairman of the Israeli athletics association, discovered him and converted him into a marathon runner.

Seteng has won more than 50 titles in his adopted country. He finished 20th in the 2004 Athens Olympics and placed 19th last year at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, where he was declared the oldest competitor to finish the race. His best result to date has been 2 hours, 14 minutes, 21 seconds.

“He has unbelievable genetics. The older he gets, the better he gets,” Ben-Gal said. “There is no explanation for it.”

According to the International Olympic Committee, the oldest Olympian was Oscar Swahn, who was 72 when he competed in the now-discontinued event of running deer shooting at the 1920 Games. Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan, a 67-year-old equestrian contestant, is expected to be the oldest Olympian in 2008.

The IOC said it doesn’t keep age statistics for individual events, but there is no recorded case among authorities of an older runner than Seteng.

So far, Seteng has been unable to profit from his gifts. He still resides in the slums of this working class town, his large family crammed into a tiny three-room apartment in a neighborhood infested with drugs, crime and violence.

The sparsely furnished apartment is cluttered with dozens of trophies and medals he has collected over the years. He mostly trains by himself, running on the beach or in parks, his matchstick-thin legs cruising along in a pair of bright orange New Balance sneakers.

He sports a modest smile beneath a thin mustache, projecting an unassuming manner. But he’s not bashful about his ageless abilities.

“It’s not hard to get there,” he said of the Olympics. “The problem is getting a medal.”

Israel has won only six medals – one gold, one silver and four bronze. All these have come in judo, rowing and windsurfing, rather than the glamorous track and field events.

This year’s Israeli delegation appears to be no different. It includes 35 athletes, but only two in track and field – Seteng and pole vaulter Alex Averbukh, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.

Seteng says that if it wasn’t for his late introduction to running, he might have neared the achievements of his idol and fellow Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie, who holds 25 world records.

“I’m only sorry I didn’t start earlier,” he said in Ethiopian-accented Hebrew. “You also need luck. There is only one Haile. There is only one king, and not everyone can be him.”

In the meantime, his major concern is supporting his family in Israel.

Seteng came to Israel under the Law of Return, which gives automatic citizenship to any Jew.

Today, there about 110,000 Ethiopians in Israel, a country of 7 million. Many have suffered from immigration ills, such as poverty, crime and substance abuse, and as a result have squandered some impressive athletic skills.

“We really messed up with the Ethiopian community,” said Yehiam Skitel, Seteng’s coach and adviser. “It didn’t fulfill its potential. We could have had many athletes like Ayele, but they couldn’t continue because of financial difficulties.”

Seteng survives on a modest government stipend for Ethiopian immigrants, and gets additional support because he is an athlete. He said he sleeps 5-6 hours a night and eats whatever his wife makes for the rest of the family.

Skitel says that is no way for an Olympic athlete to live and train, and hopes to attract a sponsor so Seteng can move to a better neighborhood and focus on his training without worrying about his family’s daily woes.

“Ayele is a symbol, everyone looks up to him,” he said. “The more he succeeds, the more it will help his community.”

Ironically, Seteng is now headed back to Ethiopia for two months, where the altitude and stiff competition will help him prepare better for the Olympics. But he says his allegiances are clear.

“I love Israel,” he said. “I’m proud to compete for it.”