“Are they Olympic Material?”
I have received this question numerous times by curious friends. I reply with a muddled “no,” explaining that I am not diminishing the girl’s running abilities, but explain that is not the aim of the Yaya Girls Program.
The goal of the Yaya Girls Program is not to make olympians, but instead to focus on fostering the development of these young women in numerous other arenas. Let me describe the greater Ethiopian running culture in order to full explain why this is:
Before coming to Ethiopia, I did not realize how many people in Ethiopia are trying to pursue professional running. After a few morning runs in the forest, where I would typically see at least 300 hundred runners in a span of 45 minutes, it became clear to me that thousands of Ethiopian runners are striving to win races.
Running in Ethiopia is seen as a way out of poverty. Many runners are encouraged to drop out of school from a young age to focus on running, and are told by their coaches that they will be unable to reach their potential as runners unless they leave school and train full-time. Many of those who drop out, join running clubs — training in the morning, resting during the day, and training again in the afternoon. Some of these clubs provide the runners with small stipends, while others do not.
Many of those who pursue running come from low socio-economic backgrounds and believe that running will be a pathway to wealth. I have often wondered whether if given enough money to live comfortably for the long-term, would they still choose to continue training? Is running just a pathway to making money or do they truly love the sport? Are these questions even mutually exclusive?
I had the opportunity to do short interviews with the six current Yaya Girls and explore their backgrounds. I asked each girl about her running dreams. In their own words, each said something to the effect of “I want to win races and become rich.” I also asked many other Ethiopian friends who were pursuing professional running about their running goals and received similar answers.
Unquestionably, it is a beautiful thing to believe in your dreams, but there is also the reality of understanding one’s abilities within the context of the surrounding competitive environment. Only a handful of people from each country can be sent to the Olympics in any given event, and when thousands of runners pursue these few spots, almost all will be sadly left out, without a ticket to Rio.
What do these runners fall back on when they are poor, have little education, are unemployed and have no marketable skills or job prospects?
This is where the mission of the Yaya Girls Program comes in. We provide aspiring young female runners with an opportunity to grow and develop as more than just runners. At Yaya, the Girls study English, gender empowerment, and receive vocational training. They still train twice per day and take their running very seriously. However, instead of running being their only way out, it becomes a culturally accepted safe space where they can practice hard work and discipline, while continuing to chase their uncertain running dreams.
When the Yaya Girls graduate from the program, the hope is for them to leave with new skills and connections to get a well-paying job, allowing them to become financially stable, young adults. What is most important is that they leave the program empowered, strong, and able to support themselves, whether or not they continue to run.