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Marathon officials asking Ethiopian fans to stay off course

By Jay Lindsay, Associated Press, 4/12/2001

BOSTON -- Ethiopian marathon fans are known for their unrestrained devotion to their favorite runners, but Boston Marathon officials are asking them to tone it down this year by staying off the race course.

In recent years, Ethiopian fans have bolted from the sidelines to run beside the athletes for a short distance, sometimes waving Ethiopian flags.

So far, they haven't interfered with the outcome of the race.

''Knock on wood,'' said race director Dave McGillivray. ''We want to be proactive.''

McGillivray has talked with members of the Boston Ethiopian Sports Club several times in the last year, including this past week, and asked for help in keeping their fans off the course. He added he'd make the same request of any group whose members jumped on the course.

Mesele Kifle, a committee member of the Ethiopian sports club, said he understands the reason for the request and thinks fans will cooperate.

''We'll still go, but we'll change our method of cheering,'' he said. ''We don't want anybody to be disqualified. If there is body contact, that could jeopardize the runners.''

Much of the race course is barricaded to keep the roads clear, but it's impossible to block off the entire 26.2 mile course, McGillivray said.

One spot at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue in Newton, just before the series of three hills known as ''Heartbreak Hill,'' has proven a particularly popular spot for Ethiopian fans to jump on the course, said Jack Fleming, spokesman for Boston Athletic Association, which runs the marathon.

All spectators must understand the road is a field of competition, akin to the field at Fenway Park, Fleming said.

''It may be difficult for people to realize, versus Fenway Park where there are walls and a field, but for those six hours the 26.2 miles is transformed from a public roadway to an athletic venue,'' he said.

The tight finish in last year's marathon, in which the top three men finished within three seconds of each other, shows how important is to keep the roads clear, said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association.

''Seconds do count,'' he said.

Kifle said the Ethiopian club has been making announcements on Boston's Ethiopian community radio program, asking fans not to run on the course. He's also relying on club members to spread the word to stay off the course.

''We'll do the best we can,'' Kifle said.

The biggest Ethiopian stars at this year's marathon are Fatuma Roba, the 1996 Atlanta Games women's winner and three-time Boston champion, and Gezahegne Abera, the Sydney Olympic men's champion and last year's Boston runner-up.

Kifle said that though running isn't the average American's favorite sport, it's hugely popular in Ethiopia, and its runners inspire passion nationwide.

''These people are like heroes,'' he said. ''It's a big deal.''

Morse said no one wants to dampen the excitement Ethiopian fans feel on marathon day.

''We're pleased with the enthusiasm... We know there's been a growing amount of enthusiasm,'' he said. ''We're just trying to remind them to be careful in that celebration.''

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