A Man And His Achievements
By Pontus Lindberg
Onni Niskanen was the Swede who guided Africa onto the arenas of the world's athletics. He was the man behind the Ethiopian miracle runners, whose primary representative was Abebe Bikila. Onni Niskanen is dead now. Pontus Lindberg, former Headmaster at Bosön (headquarter for the Swedish Sports Confederation), met with Onni Niskanen shortly before his departure. This was to be the last interview with Onni Niskanen.
Pontus: - Welcome home to Sweden, Onni, after many, many years in Ethiopia!
Onni: - Thank you. It was actually in 1946 that I went to Ethiopia to help develop the sports within the newly started Ethiopian Cadet School and within the Air Force.
P: - Had you been involved with sports earlier?
O: - I had competed a bit, primarily at long distance and cross-country running. I had completed Kriegman's Sports Instructor training and worked as a leader and
chairperson at Duvbo IK. Furthermore, I had been Sports Officer at I1, so I had a solid experience of both civilian and military sports in Sweden.
P: - You were employed at the Cadet School but soon transferred to civilian duty.
O: - The training period at the Cadet School was two years and when I had run that, I got an employment with the Ministry of Education at the same time that I became Secretary-General for the Ethiopian Red Cross.
P: - Ethiopia today has a very well organised school sports movement and I suppose it is thanks to you?
O: - I was not alone. With time, ten Swedish certified Gymnastics Instructors plus the Olympic star Lasse Hall were hired at different places within the country and together we formed a school sports movement that was close to the Swedish standards.
P: - Was there an existing civilian sports movement in the country at that time?
O: - There was not a civilian sports federation, no organisations, no sports grounds and no instructors or leaders. We had to start from scratch. However, the Ministry of Information wanted Ethiopia to be part of the international sports movement and so they sent me to the Olympics in London 1948 to study the Games, make contacts and introduce Ethiopia to the Olympic community. Among others, I made contact with Sigfrid Edström who at the time was the President of the Olympics Committee.
P: - And then you were ready to start?
O: - It was a slow start, but we started training leaders and stewards so that we could arrange competitions among military personnel, police officers and schoolchildren. I had a few hundred plaques and cups from my active period and they now became desirable prizes. That way, it was rather easy to get competitors, but most of them only wanted to compete - not train. It took some time before they accepted a reasonably targeted training.
P: - Why did precisely long distance running become the main sports?
O: - There were not any sports grounds or sports equipment. Running could be carried out on tracks and roads. Under such circumstances, long distance running is a close choice. Furthermore, you should know that running is a natural way of transport in Ethiopia. Many workers in Addis Ababa lived several kilometres from the workplace. Friday afternoon you would see them jog away over the mountains home to the family and on Monday morning, they would come jogging back with a bundle with a little food in. Usually, they ran barefoot in spite of the stony terrain.
P: - Does running come especially easy to them?
O: - Most Ethiopians are of slender build and lightweight. On top of that, they have been running the whole time since early childhood.
P: - So running is a lifestyle, not a leisure pursuit. How did you get them interested in real training?
O: - The training has to be adjusted to each individual and be varied and fun. When they saw that the results improved, they were stimulated. Moreover, the successes meant more opportunities of wage earnings. Unemployment was over 50% at the time and an employment within the military or police forces was very sought after. When we had come far enough to dare to go to the neighbouring countries to compete, this became an extra incentive.
The man who placed Africa on sports map of the world!
P: - The first big victory was in Rome 1960, when Abeba Bikila ran barefoot on Rome's paved streets and won the marathon race. Bikila was entirely your creation, I presume?
O: - Bikila was a great talent and I knew that he could compete with the best, but he was not completely ready. He had for instance not learned to run with shoes on his feet. I was of course afraid that the external circumstances would affect him. To be transferred from the simple conditions in Ethiopia to the giant Olympic Games in the metropolis Rome means an enormous psychological strain. However, Bikila was strong and he could take the pressure.
P: - Bikila repeated the victory at the Olympics in Tokyo 1964. He was completely superior and surprised the world press by working through a gymnastics programme after crossing the finish line. How did he manage?
O: - Limbering-up exercises were part of the programme after every training session and he did his exercises routinely. When Bikila went to his third Olympics start, Mexico 1968, he was if possible even better, but he met with a foot injury before the race and that forced him to withdraw.
P: - Then your second best runner, Mamo Wolde, took over the victory laurel. O: - Wolde was not in the same league as Bikila, not as physically strong, and he was already rather old, 36 years, but he followed the instructions and won easily.
P: - New leaders have now taken over your work within sports in Ethiopia. They are leaders who you have trained and who work in accordance with your outlines. Can you tell us how to bring forth a world star in long distance running?
O: To succeed, a coach must familiarise himself with the talents, temperament, living standards and interests of the pupil. When the pupil well is interested, it is important to set up the exercises so that the body develops the all-round strength, stamina and speed it needs. At the same time, you have to develop the psyche and it is important to make the training programme varied and pleasant.
P: - Since it is long distance running, I suppose that the distances are the main thing. O: - Of course, but we must not neglect other generally strengthening training as suppleness exercises.
P: - How long distances do you run?
O: - Normally around 10 km, but every fortnight we tend to run 20 km as a test run. Every week we include a cross-country run in the training and they learn to put in some extra effort running uphill.
P: - Do you run at maximal speed during the training sessions?
O: - According to science, 80% is enough to get an efficient building-up and that is of course the goal.
P: - You can often read in the press about long distance runners that run 200 - 300 km per week. What do you think about that type of training?
O: - Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to training and I believe that 10 km is a more suitable training distance than 30 km. The training has to be varied or you create robot runners and not winners.
P: - We now know the physical building-up rather well from the Physiology, but how do you give these Ethiopians the confidence that is necessary for Olympic victories.
O: - It is mainly a question of coaching. Every time an athlete gets on the starting line, he has to have a fully achievable performance goal in front of himself. If he reaches the goal, the confidence grows. The coach should put the goal rather on the low side than on the high. To exceed the coach's expectations creates happiness and confidence. The psychological development is just as important as the physical.
Rest before a victory
P: - It is hard to pinpoint the performance peak for an athlete but you have really succeeded in that area, in spite of long journeys and unfamiliar surroundings. Do you have any hints?
O: - When an athlete is really well prepared, both physically and psychologically, it is important to get him fired up before the competition. To achieve that, you have to decrease the physical training some time before the competition to really charge up the batteries. I often let the boys rest - often in bed - two days before an important marathon race. You should be so rested that your muscles are tingling.
P: - Why do we have such problems coaching real top men in Sweden?
O: - A couple of Swedish marathon runners, Ståhl and Persson, are of a very good class, but I think they compete too often to be able to reach the real top. I did not allow my marathon runners to run more than three big marathon races per year. If they compete sparingly, they can stay top men for many years. Both Mamo Wolde and Miruts Yifter won Olympic victories when they were in their 40s.
P: - Can you make athletes continue training if they are only offered three competitions per year?
O: - Between the big marathon races, they could participate in races over shorter distances, but on principle, I am against competing too frequently. You should always have time for charging up and for preparations before a competition.
"This is a rule that goes for all athletes and not only long-distance runners", Onni sums up. "That is a basic rule that I have learnt from a long life in the service of sports".