Betlhem Desalegn Belayneh
It’s all about high-altitude training and motivation for the Olympic runner who represented the UAE at the Summer Olympic Games in London and has won four gold medals at the Asian Championships.
How does it feel to represent the UAE in the highest-profile international sporting events?
I am so lucky to be here! Sport is my life, and it feels great to represent the UAE and to get so much support from the UAE Athletics Federation and from its President, Mr. Ahmed Al Kamali.
As an athlete you have to work very hard but you also have to be given the opportunities to train and compete. The UAE Athletics Federation has give me that possibility! To train, to compete and to win! I am very proud to represent the UAE.
When did you start running? Tell us about the beginning of your career.
I started running when I was 14. Back in Addis Ababa, where I’m from. Ethiopia has the best runners in the world, so everyone grows up wanting to be a runner. When I was in school, I won several 100-meter competitions. It was my brother who said, “Why don’t you try this seriously?” That was when I started to really run.
The thing was with me, I was born in the city. If you’re born in the city, you are not expected to be an athlete. Most athletes in Ethiopia come from the countryside. I’m from the middle of Addis, so my family wanted me to get a job as a hostess or a nurse. Athletes train in the forest; they wake up very early. This is difficult for someone living in the city. I had to really push hard to become an athlete. But at the end of the day, well, here I am!
When you think about all of the sacrifices you have made to become the best, you focus and you win.
Betlhem Desalegn Belayneh
When did you begin representing the UAE as an athlete?
I was on the Ethiopian national team back home, and then in 2010 when I was 20, I came to the UAE and since then, I’ve been running with the UAE Athletics Federation.
Most of your training continues in Ethiopia. Why is that?
The altitude in Ethiopia gives athletes who train there an advantage. The country is 3,000 meters above sea level. When you have more oxygen in your body, of course you will be a better runner, a better athlete.
You competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Tell us about that experience.
I had never seen a crowd that big in my life! I had never seen a stadium that big in my life! It was a hard experience; I trained with focus for it, but in the end it was difficult. I didn’t expect it. The fear and the sound of the crowd. It was my first Olympic Games.
You’re a four-time Asian Championships gold medalist—how was the experience of competing in the Asian Championships different from competing in the Olympics?
It’s a different level of competition, of course. At the Olympics, you are running against the world; at the Asian Championships, you are running against Asia. But you have to work hard, regardless. The first time I ran in the Asian Championships, I did not win. It takes time to make progress. I remember the first time I competed, I came in fifth place. I was very upset. It’s just not easy the first time you do anything. So you have to work hard, yes, but you also need the experience. It’s not just because you are good that you will win. You cannot get nervous, and this only comes with experience. The more races you win, the more confident you will become.
How do you deal with the pressure and stress that comes with competition?
Even if you are in good shape for competition, you will get stressed. So you have to talk with your coach; he will help you. He has more experience; he is older. He will give you advice that will help you. Also, I read psychology books, so I can work on helping myself as much as I can.
Everyone will get tired when they run. But if a person is angry, they will be the one to win. The angrier you get, the better chance you will have of winning. If everyone is physically prepared, the one who is angriest will get it. I believe this. Everyone comes to win, so the best thing to tell yourself when you run is, “I am the best.”
What makes you angry when you run?
It’s not easy to be a runner. Training is difficult, we don’t communicate very much with other people. You have to go to sleep early, you don’t go out to see friends. I see my family once a week; even though I am in Ethiopia, I have to stay in the training camp.
Being a good athlete holds you. So when you run, you remember all the pain. When I’m running, I’m thinking about how I came to this position in life, all the sacrifices I have made, how hard I’ve worked. All of this makes me angry, makes me more likely to win. When you think about all of the sacrifices you have made to become the best, you focus and win.
You are a middle-distance runner. Why middle distance and not short or long?
I started with 100 meters. But then I became interested in the 1,500 meters, the middle distance. For short distance you need speed, for long distance you need endurance, and for middle distance you need both. It’s a tough event for the mind, which I like. It’s not the sort of race where it’s obvious who will win. In long distance you see it in the laps—who is moving up and who is falling behind—but with middle distance, you just don’t know until the very end. It’s a very tough event, and I like that about it.
Every professional athlete needs some talent. But you also have to learn what your strengths are. I’m fast. Which means that I have to work on my endurance to get a balance between the two. You cannot just have one; with middle distance you need the two.
I always want to be better—not just better than other people who do what I do but also better than myself, better than I was yesterday.
Betlhem Desalegn Belayneh
What motivates you?
I really enjoy what I do! I enjoy this life very much. I enjoy the competition and the travel. I work hard but I’m very happy.
I always want to be better, not just than other people who do what I do, but also I want to be better than I was yesterday. In Ethiopia, we have so many great athletes, like Haile Gebrselassie and Tirunesh Dibaba. They are my idols; I push myself when I think about them.
I have a good friend, Genzebe Dibaba, who is a world-record holder. Friends like this are important; they keep you moving. They show you that you can do it. They show you what they are doing to get to the top and give you inspiration.
What advice do you have for any runners reading?
Sport keeps you healthy, it keeps you fit, it keeps you beautiful. It feels so good to be active even if you’re not professional. Go for a run, sweat—this will make you beautiful. You will be energized and you will be able to do your job better. I wish that everyone in the world would do some kind of sport to see the benefits for themselves.
What are your professional goals?
For every professional athlete the answer is the same: Olympic gold. I will work until I get there. My goal is to be an Olympic champion one day.