Three years back, he was a star and a part of the celebrations. On Sunday, when the entire city was bathing in the marathon sun, he took a desolate walk on the pavement beside Azad Maidan. Ethiopian Girma Assefa – the 2011 Mumbai Marathon champion – failed to complete the full marathon this time and felt left out from the same people who once embraced him.
Assefa, who set a record in 2011 clocking 2 hours, 9 minutes and 54 seconds, had to retire midway due to a limb injury. Two-time winner John Kelai from Kenya had finished sixth that year.
“Good old times, but today I am feeling a little alone. But I did not do anything great, people do forget, I should be the one reminding them,” says Assefa with a plastic smile. Talking about the conditions and his injury, he says: “The weather this year is not good and running on the roads can be injury-prone. I was nursing this injury for a long time but I thought it got cured. Sad that it had to recur today.”
The 27-year-old athlete trained for four months for the Mumbai Marathon. His athlete brother Hailu Mekonnen, who accompanied him here, helped him. “We used to run 30 km daily on the roads. The Ethiopia roads are very good to run on. But the weather and roads are not good here,” says Mekonnen.
Though the organisers roped Assefa and paid for his expenses but a position in the marathon, he said, could have been a lot of help monetarily. Apart from what he earns from marathons, he runs a business of car rental.
“Yes, I am a small businessman you can say. But it is too small to be counted. I provide cars on an hourly basis to people and they pay me $700 in return,” he adds.
However, he expects to get half of the promised amount for his participation since he ran half the race. “Usually, I think I was supposed to get around $3000 and now I may just have to stay happy with $1500,” he says. Assefa was awarded $36,000 in 2011.
Assefa's childhood had not been sunny as he grew up watching the Eritrean – Ethiopia War between 1998 – 2000. The war had left a deep impact in his mind and was instrumental in making him an athlete. “I wanted to make my nation proud, so that people don't fight over petty issues. It was terrible to see dead bodies being carried when I was a child,” he recalls.
He did not come to Mumbai Marathon the last two years because he was busy running races in China. Despite being left alone, his spirts have not died and he plans to train for the Hong Kong Marathon and bounce back.