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By Balazs Koranyi
HAUGESUND, Norway, March 23 With Scandinavia's
spring thaw slowly arriving, Olympic marathon hopeful Urige Buta
has emerged from underground. Literally.
The former Ethiopian refugee spent much of the dark Nordic
winter running up and down a mile-long service tunnel built for
sewage pipes, waiting for the snow to melt.
A far cry from the high-tech, no expense spared training
regime that many of his rivals enjoy, but Buta, a Norwegian
citizen since 2011, is not much of a complainer.
He is happy just to be alive and safe. The rest is detail.
"You can't always have what you want," Buta told Reuters.
"Maybe it's been difficult but my dream has always been to run
in the Olympics and that is about to come true.
"Even if your body is tired, your mind can be strong," he
Buta fled Ambo, 145 kilometers (90 miles) west of Addis
Ababa, in 2003 fearing for his safety after his father was
arrested for siding with the 'wrong' political side.
"My father's friend said, 'I know people smugglers, just do
as they say and you'll be safe', so I did," Buta said,
explaining how he ended up in Norway virtually by accident.
"I don't know what happened to my father. Last I heard he
had escaped but nobody knows anything for sure."
POOR IN A RICH PLACE
Norway is one of the world's richest countries with $95,000
in per capita GDP, but Buta enjoys a more modest life. He works
full-time as a janitor, using breaks between shifts for training
and spending time with his nine-month-old son.
"I start work at 6 a.m. and go maybe 5 or 6 hours without a
break, and my legs just ache by then," said Buta, whose two
hour, nine minutes marathon best would beat his new country's
national record by almost a minute and is set to secure him a
spot on the Olympic team.
"But I have to be back at work by three so there is no time
to rest," added Buta, whose passport says he is 33 but might not
be accurate since his birth was never recorded.
While he is unlikely to contend for a medal in London Buta
has a shot at a top 12 finish, which would be a big result for a
nation that last enjoyed marathon success in the 1970s and '80s
when Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen dominated the New York
City and London marathons, clocking several world records.
Buta arrived in Haugesund, a town of 30,000 some 300
kilometers (190 miles) west of Oslo, after the country's
athletic federation enlisted the local club to get him out of a
With four people cramped into a small room that also served
as the kitchen, Buta was desperate to get out and was spending
close to a quarter of his monthly allowance on gym fees just so
he could get some exercise.
The only non-paved road in town was a short gravel strip, so
Buta ran up and down endlessly to pass the time.
Then came the real shock: the Scandinavian winter.
"When it snowed, I kept trying to catch the flakes but it
always melted in my hands," Buta said. "But after three days the
excitement was over and it was just very, very cold."
At first, Buta seemed to be an unremarkable runner so the
federation needed to make a few phone calls before sparking
interest in Haugesund trainer Erling Askeland, a 30-year veteran
of the sport.
"I went to see him and immediately knew he had it in him,"
said Askeland. "I saw it in how he ran, his style, his form.
"And he's a winner who is always positive even when his body
is tired. His mind rises above because he wants to be better."
Haugesund took him on and within two years Buta was Norway's
However, since he still had refugee status he was not
allowed to travel abroad, leaving him with few training or
racing opportunities and also limiting his ability to earn prize
Even now, with Norwegian citizenship, Buta does not lead a
"We had to pick races based on whether he could fly home by
Sunday night to be at work by 6 a.m. on Monday," Askeland said.
"We can't work out when we need to, we work out when we have the
time and it's much less than ideal."
A top marathon runner will train twice a day except Sunday,
which is usually reserved for the week's longest run. In between
workouts, most of the time is spent resting or on auxiliary
exercise, like strength training.
For Buta though, such a schedule is a pipe dream.
He cleans offices in the morning then takes a few hours
break before going back to tidy up the local high school, often
using the school gym and shower to sneak in a few extra minutes
This spring, though, could bring his biggest break yet.
Facility management firm ISS has agreed to give him a paid
leave to focus on the Olympics. While the money is still not
enough, Buta will soon have the time to run, a huge luxury.
"Then I can maybe take a medal at the next European
championship in 2014," he added.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)