It is an opportunity that comes along once in a career. For many it never comes along at all. So for the 40 Irish athletes who will compete at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Fingal-Dublin next Sunday (12), the pressure will very much feel like a privilege.
For Hiko Tonosa, who will lead his adopted nation into battle in the city he now calls home, it is a responsibility that leaves the 26-year-old beaming with pride.
“I’m so happy to wear the green jersey,” he said.
Tonosa grew up in Shashamane, Ethiopia, and at the age of 20 his gift for running saw him earn a scholarship to Japan where, throughout 2016, he competed in multiple Ekiden races.
After injuries hampered his progress, he returned to Ethiopia towards the end of 2016 to find his country mired in conflict due to the continued marginalisation of the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group there. It was a plight that was brought to the attention of the sporting world a few months earlier at the Rio Olympics, where Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head as he raced across the line to win silver in the men’s marathon, a symbol of defiance used by anti-government protestors.
After seeing what was being done to his fellow Oromo, Tonosa joined his friends to protest the killing of students by government forces, but he was swiftly arrested and put in prison for almost three months, where he endured regular beatings.
He was released in 2017 only after signing a form to state he would provide information to the government if protests occurred in his area, and that summer he set about rebuilding his running career, securing a spot in the Morton Games in Dublin and the Cork City Sports with assistance from a Canadian agent.
While in Ireland, he received a call informing him his best friend, a fellow athlete, had been shot dead on the street back home due to his presence at a protest. Tonosa was told the local authorities also had him on his radar, and that a similar fate awaited if he returned.
“That’s why I stayed,” he said.
He sought asylum in Ireland and was placed in a direct provision centre, an extremely basic room-and-board facility where he was based for almost two years. While there, an employee discovered his running background and linked him up with Dundrum South Dublin Athletic Club.
He has run for them ever since, though as his running progress stalled in 2019, Tonosa switched coaches to join Feidhlim Kelly, who trains athletes from various clubs under the umbrella term of the Dublin Track Club.
They may be mostly amateurs but they train as professionals, the athletes putting in hard workouts every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning, with Tonosa typically logging 150-160 kilometres each week.
He has set a raft of personal bests since joining the group which includes Irish internationals like Seán Tobin, Mark English, Andrew Coscoran and Michelle Finn.
“I joined this group for a reason: to see how hard it was,” he said. “Everyone in the group is running to their potential. I have no words to say thanks to Feidhlim. He’s doing an amazing job.”
Earlier this year, Tonosa returned to Ethiopia for a spell, catching up with friends and family and spending two months training alongside distance-running royalty like two-time world 5000m champion Muktar Edris, world indoor mile record-holder Yomif Kejelcha and Olympic 10,000m champion Selemon Barega.
He mostly followed Kelly’s programme while there, rowing in with the others when it made sense, and in May he returned to Ireland in impressive form, clocking 13:36.71 for 5000m in Belfast.
In June he pulled on the Irish vest for the first time, smashing his PB to finish 12th in 28:13.10 at the European 10,000m Cup in Birmingham.
“That was many a dream to wear the green jersey,” he said.
In March last year, Tonosa received his Irish citizenship and as grateful as he was for the opportunities it presented, what he was most excited about was the chance to run at major championships. “I gave everything for my running,” he said.
In June this year, he won Irish titles on the track over 5000m and 10,000m, which made him a marked man heading into last month’s national cross country championships. On a splendid sunny day in Santry, in a park alongside the national athletics stadium, Tonosa’s bid for the senior men’s title was under threat on the final lap from Darragh McElhinney, the 21-year-old who will be the chief hope for Ireland in the U23 men’s race next Sunday.
The pair ran shoulder-to-shoulder through the final two kilometres, pulling well clear of their rivals, with McElhinney shooting to the lead inside the last 400 metres. But Tonosa had something left in the locker, upping the pace again heading into the final turn and sprinting clear to take his first Irish cross country title.
“I had full confidence in my speed on the last lap,” he said. “Darragh got maybe two or three metres, but I was 85% sure [I was going] to win the race. I was so happy.”
Tonosa had never competed in cross country in Ethiopia and the national championships was just his fourth ever race on the natural terrain. He does, however, have experience on the course in Abbotstown that will host the best of Europe next Sunday.
“That course is hard, but I will try my best,” he says.
Although Ireland is now his home, Tonosa has always kept a close eye on events in Ethiopia, where tensions have escalated again in recent months. After taking power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assured those who fled Ethiopia that they’d be safe to return and Tonosa put that to the test last year, flying back for the first time since 2017 to visit his mother.
“That was good, it was quiet when I was back home,” he said.
There has been ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian army and Tigrayan rebels following the ousting from power of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and while Tonosa cautions he’s “not a politician” he says the situation is “still bad” there. He believes very little has changed for the Oromo since Ahmed – an Oromo – took office in 2018.
All he can do is hope for the best and focus on the task he has at hand, which is to finish as high up as possible in the senior men’s race next Sunday.
“I’ll be happy if I finish top-10, top-15,” he said.
Thousands turned out at the Irish championships last month and what struck Tonosa as he raced around the six-lap course was the number of people shouting his name. There were many voices he knew, like his clubmates and training partners, but there were many more he didn’t.
“Thank you to everyone,” he said. “They gave me power.”
He hopes that will be the case again next Sunday where, in a country synonymous with 40 shades of green, Tonosa will be one of 40 Irish athletes toeing the line, with six in each of the six individual races and four in the mixed relay.
Forty different journeys, 40 different stories, all leading to this rare and precious chance. Tonosa’s tale may be a little different to the others, but no one will be prouder – or more deserving – to stand on that start line in green.
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics