Feature19 Dec 2014

Yemaneberhan Crippa – the orphan born to run


Yemaneberhan Crippa winning the 2014 SPAR European Cross Country Championships junior men's race (© Getty Images)

You have to go back more than 30 years to find the last European runner who stood on the podium after the junior men’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships – when Spain’s Pere Casacuberta won in 1984 – so it has to be a very long shot that Italy’s Yemaneberhan Crippa will end that streak in Guiyang, China, next March.

Nevertheless, when winning at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in the Bulgarian town of Samokov last Sunday (14), the 18-year-old Crippa showed that he has the ability to upset historical odds.

He became only the second Italian ever to win an individual gold at the annual event, following in the footsteps of the renowned Andrea Lalli, who followed up junior gold in 2006 with a victory in the under-23 race two years later and then the senior men’s gold medal in 2012.

There might have been an element of fortune in Crippa’s win in Samokov, as Russia’s favoured Aleksandr Novikov sprinted for the finish one lap too early and – almost inevitably – faded from contention.

But Crippa’s commitment and racing brain enabled him to take full advantage of the situation and that will stand him in good stead in China, when the 2015 World Cross Country Championships will be at a venue which will be unknown territory for almost everybody.

“It was a misunderstanding in the counting of the laps,” said Crippa after Sunday’s race. “So I took advantage of the moment and got to the finish line alone. It was very hard. I gave all of myself, I give everything. I am so happy, I can’t believe I am European champion.”

Having won his first major title, Crippa is now ready to climb the distance running ranks but, in many ways, the teenager from the Italian Alps has already scaled several mountains.

Indeed, there are few European athletes who have come from such humble origins.

Alpine adoption

Born in Ethiopia, he was adopted in his early years by Trento-based husband and wife Roberto and Luisa Crippa. He was the sixth of nine orphans from the East African country taken under the wing of the caring Italian couple.

Father Roberto was a running enthusiast and encouraged the boys to enjoy the trails and mountains surrounding the picturesque Alpine city.

Yemaneberhan, or Yema as he’s widely known, and older his brothers Nekagenet – Neka, for short – and Kelemu all began to show some real promise at school, frequently succeeding in local track and trail events.

Kelemu was the first to break into international level, placing 10th in the junior men’s race at the 2009 European Mountain Running Championships. Neka and Yema followed his lead.

The pair both represented Italy at the last IAAF World Cross Country Championships two years ago in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

Later the same year, Neka won the junior men’s gold at the 2013 WMRA World Mountain Running Championships. He also raced at the recent European Cross Country Championships, but dropped out of the men's under-23 race in the early stages.

By now, the brothers were coached by former international athlete Massimo Pegoretti who had represented Italy in the late 1990s at the IAAF World Indoor Championships and World Cross Country Championships and Crippa started to show his abilities on the the track.

He showed he had great potential by finishing sixth in the 1500m final at the 2013 IAAF World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine. Still just 17, he also represented Italy at this year’s IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, USA where he reached the 1500m final and finished a creditable 10th.

Having bagged his first international title in Bulgaria, Crippa now looks set to really make his mark internationally.

Still guessing over Guiyang

Next year’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships remains an obvious target but despite being continental champion, Crippa is too modest to assume he will be selected for the trip to China.

“The Italian junior team will go to the World Cross Country Championships,” he commented. “But it is too early to speak about the event. The team is not finalised. There are so many good young guys so strong competing, so the team could be different (from Samokov).”

Despite his modesty and protestations, if fit, he will also be certainly a man to watch in the middle distance events at this summer’s European Junior Championships in Eskilstuna, Sweden. 

In the long term, he is looking towards the long-distance events on the track and he takes inspiration from another African-born European.

“My dream is the 5k and 10k,” he says, and he is unequivocal about his athletics hero. “The one and only Mo Farah. I love his sprint, his last lap in the race. The sprint of Mo is magic. It is also about his personality.”

The Somalian-born Farah is an icon of British sport and Crippa embraces his homeland in a similar manner to the double Olympic, world and European champion over 5000m and 10,000m.

“I am Ethiopian-born, but I am absolutely and totally Italian,” added Crippa, leaving no one in any doubt where his loyalties lie.

He adds that in his spare time he plays football with his friends and is a huge supporter of both Inter Milan and the Italian national football team.

There could hardly be anything more Italian than that.

Chris Broadbent for the IAAF