Ethiopia and the Olympics

Ethiopians have been synonymous with long distance running ever since the barefoot Abebe Bikela won the Rome marathon. This has given the nation a foothold in global sport, with athletes like Haile Gebre Selassie, heralded worldwide for their achievements. At this year's Olympics, however, Ethiopia have been in the press for the wrong reasons, while their competitiveness has been restricted by the unfair scheduling of pre-qualification.

Ethiopia’s first appearance at the Olympics takes us back 60 years, when the renowned cyclist, Geremew Demboba, received the full support, blessing and financial assistance of His Majesty Haile Selassie I. Aviation was still in its infancy; it took at least 10 days’ air travel on the small Dekota airplane to reach Australia where the Games were being held. It is almost hard to believe how athletes could participate in the competition after those long tiresome flights.

But it was after the Rome marathon that opportunity struck through the window of the residence of Abebe Bikela. Ever since the bare footed young soldier of the Imperial Body Guard won the marathon, Ethiopia has become synonymous with long distance running.

Abebe’s victory was double-edged: it was not only a retribution over the Fascist Italian invaders who had also stole the Axum rock hewn stelae, but also a tribute to those whose defiance against the segregating of the race between white and black athletes had been successful.

We remember the Nazi leader Hitler, who had chosen to move away from his seat instead of shaking hands with the African American gold medallist Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin Germany. We also cannot forget the regretful incident of the boxer Mohammed Ali, who threw away his gold medal at the Olympics simply because the whites would not recognise the victory.

Not to mention, marathon runner, Vanderlei Cordeiro, who was denied victory at the 2004 Athens games when he was attacked by a spectator. However, on a positive note, Cordeiro was the person chosen to light the cauldron on Friday after an exuberant show of the Brazilian culture and breath-taking fireworks.

Abebe’s skill and determination, to the surprise of the whole sports world, was repeated after four years at the Tokyo Olympics, running the marathon even faster than he had in Rome. This time around, he broke the world record in two hours, 12 minutes and a little over 12 seconds. The name Abebe Bikela and his performance has been a lasting history and an unforgettable name among the Japanese to this day. In fact, a lot of Japanese athletes made considerable attempts to emulate him, in the process making a name for themselves and their country.

Many researchers have taken an interest in studying the environmental conditions and factors that may be contributing to the outstanding success in mid and long distance runners not only in Ethiopia but in other East African countries too, including Kenya, who themselves are known to be competing head to head against the Ethiopian athletes in both genders.

We have even been surprised to have our counters in Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan join us in the list of big names. Talking about names, have you noticed that Gebre Selassie, reminiscent of the Haile G. Selassie at the young age of not more than 20 years old, and others, like Derartu Tulum Gete Wami, Wami Biratu, Tolosa Kotu, Silashi Sihin, Turunesh Dibaba, Genzebe Dibaba, Fatuma Roba, Almaz Ajana, Melkamua and Kejelchi have all become household names. Gebre Mariam, Gebre Ezzgiabher, Miruts Yifterm, Sileshi Sihun and others are also linked with athletics and have played major roles in the success that has made Ethiopia synonymous with running.

Scientists have come to the conclusion that out of the Olympics, since the first modern version was held in Athens, Greece, 36 of them have been held in Europe, five in Asia, three in the US and at least two in Oceania; success was linked to the country’s level of wealth and development. What intrigued them was the unique success stories of the poor East African countries: Abebe Bikila and Miruts Yifter had not only become a cause for pride and glory for African countries south of the Sahara, but have also turned out to be gold mines for knowledge, for these athletes want to know not only how to endure long distance running with their legs but also how to stretch their wallets. People like the legendary Haile Gebre Selassie have been known to be wise in their spending and thrifty use of money.

Indeed, Haile has been one of the few world athletes who has been so used to breaking new world records in long and mid distance races that his very name has been associated with breaking new world records.

Recently, there have been concerns and controversies around the unjustified selections of athletes and unfair scheduling the time of the prequalifying tests (to know whether or not the minimal time set by the international standard). Heart-breaking decisions have been made for obscure reasons and it was these decisions that were feared to have adversely affected the Ethiopian runners’ chance of success. Meanwhile, the senior athletes had to intervene and mediate.

Another issue concerned the doping scandal. The World Athletes’ body revealed that some of the potential Ethiopian Olympians were seen at the hotel where a couch was found with some syringes and needles for doping. These suspected athletes did not waste time in undergoing the standard blood tests and we shall soon see how this all ends up.

Another problem seems to have cropped up as of late. You may recall that out of the swimming participants at the 2012 London Olympics, two young swimmers, one male and the other female, were added at the 11th hour to the disbelieving spectators. Indeed, one of them is known to have disappeared into thin air. This time too, the now infamous swimmer Robel Kiros Habte, who came last out of all swimmers, can join this list.

Finally, at the Rio Olympics 2016, 75,000 spectators were watching the torch to ignite and commence the games live, with some 3.6 billion people watching on their TV screens. The Rio villages were being occupied by sportsmen and women from 206 countries to take part in at least 43 events. Even if the marathon event for the Olympics this year has had some instability, it is expected and will stay here ad infinitiem.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Aug 16,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 850]



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