The Olympic Games

Ethiopia at the Olympics: 1956-2004
By Abraha Belai
Aug 16, 2004
Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami When 14 nations took part in the first modern 1896 Athens Olympics, the time and place was too distant for us Ethiopians. In fact, when the games were held in April 1896, our ancestors were, under the leadership of Emperor Menelik, coming back home from the Battle of Adua, beaming with a landslide victory over a colonialist force. Therefore, it would be sixty years later Ethiopia made her debut at the 1956 Melbourne Olympiad. If you roll seven or eight years back, you would be in1947 Ethiopia's (Julian) calendar year. Almost half a century ago, things were looking 'ancient,' at least on our part of the world. Much of Africa was under the yoke of colonialism, and Ethiopia was one of four African nations (the others are Ghana, Liberia and South Africa) that fielded athletes in Australia's second biggest city.

In the hastily-founded Ethiopian National Olympic Committee, athletes were picked up from army and civilian sports clubs across the country. Though we could not find an in-depth literature of our Olympic history, one impressive sports source - indicates cycling was one in which the legendary Ethiopian cyclist Geremow Denboba of St. George Sports Club of Addis Ababa competed. Geremow, who was the equivalent of the 1960s' national soccer star Mengistu Worku, finished 24th in Melbourne, quite an achievement given the lack of international experience among the sports heroes of the time. Ethiopians may have participated in boxing as well, but our focus of attention for now would be athletics. Among the runners notable for our story were also two individuals chosen for marathon: 'Gashaw,' who was from Addis Ababa, and Berhanu, who hailed from Maichew, Raya. The two were among those who received an imperial order to train heavily for a life-time achievement that, if they won medals, they would be honored as national heroes who brought honor to the country and the Emperor.

Every day, Gashaw would be seen cruising past Debrezeit on the way to Nazareth; or else he would be eating up the road to Sebeta, and beyond. His northern counterpart, Berhanu, would likewise cover arduous distances from Maichew, either battling the towering mountain of Amba Alajje to the north, or if he is heading south, he would glide past the shores of Lake Hashenge to Korem, occasionally stopped by curious relatives who would ask him how are the wife, the children, the families, the cattle, doing.

Fasting and Training

Unlike modern athletes whose support team ranges from diet experts to personal medical doctors, our earliest athletes were almost on their own. Besides, they were serious church goers who would fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. In fact in Melbourne, their first question was if their meals were not tampered with anything like pork or meat products.

Australia: too far!

One of the biggest challenges for the imperial government was flying athletes out of Addis to Australia, whose formidable distance was, by today's standard, like sending athletes on a camel caravan across the Sahara. The Ethiopian Airlines, our national carrier and pride, was a toddling 11 years old or so. But it was generous enough to deploy one of its planes. The small plane that took off on an historic mission from Old Airport in Addis would, however, be a 'turtle in the sky', and after what seemed one solid year, it gracefully landed in next-door Yemen. After refueling in then Yemeni capital Aden, our plane flew for what seemed forever to Singapore, and then to the Philippines, and six days would be counted over the Pacific before our first 'space shuttle' showed up in Melbourne.

Headed by the cosmopolitan Yidnekachew Tessema, who was the key player in the need for Ethiopia to take part in the Olympic Games, athletes were introduced to each other. Gashaw and Berhanu would then find two friends who introduced themselves as Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde, who would four years later become household names in Olympic history. In Melbourne, however, Abebe and Mamo were fielded as 100m sprinters. Obviously, results were disappointing. But the future looked bright: some wise men suggested that the two athletes were fit for long distance races like marathon. On the other hand, Gashaw and Berhanu competed in the marathon, and finished a remarkable 17th and 19th, a great consolation for the Ethiopian squad.

Four years later, it was the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, where Abebe Bikila came from no where, ran barefoot, and set a world record. Abebe, who by then had the luxury of having a Swedish coach, whose strategy included that once Abebe saw the much-talked-about Ethiopia's Axum Obelisk in Piazza Carpena in the heart of Rome, he would launch his point-of-no-return flight for a gold medal. It was a success. Abebe set a world record, and amazingly, had an extra energy to do some gymnastics, as if he were warming up for another race. Deservingly, the crowd showered him with wild applause. Abebe would become the first African to win a gold medal. He would double his victory in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Abebe is seen as perhaps one of the greatest Olympians of all time because of his unique abilities: He was a graceful runner, and when he set another world record in Tokyo, he was a few weeks earlier discharged from a hospital where his appendix was removed. Of course, Mamo Wolde would also grab a gold medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, an astonishing feat for an athlete who was 43 years old. Twelve years later, Mirus Yifter would make history at the 1980 Moscow Olympics by becoming the first person in winning double gold in the 5000m and 10000m races. "Socialist" Ethiopia would boycott the next 1984 Los Angeles and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games under the direct orders of Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who wanted to please the Soviets and Kim Il Sung's North Korea, respectively.

If boycotting the Seoul Olympics had affected a would-be Ethiopian Marathon gold medalist, it was the one and only Belaineh Densimo, one of the greatest Ethiopian marathoners who broke the six-minute barrier and set a world record of 2 hours five minutes and 56 seconds in 1986 in Rotterdam. When word of Ethiopia boycotting the Seoul Olympic Games leaked, it should be on record the former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Antonio Samaranch, and his Ethiopian advisor, the incomparable Fekrou Kidane, had explored every avenue to persuade the military regime to reconsider its decision. "Boycotting the Olympics means," the Olympic officials said, "tantamount to denying the rights of the Ethiopian youth to shine at an international youth sports extravaganza that is held once every four years." Of course, human appeal and dictatorship don't go together. Consequently, when the boycott was made public, a total shock gripped the Ethiopian sports community. But it took a special strain on Belaineh Densimo, who broke down in tears, and much was never heard of from him since. But we believe he and his colleagues may have been relieved to see the emergence of a young, powerful crop of gold-studded athletes in the likes of the remarkable Hadush Abebe, Derartu Tulu, Haile Gebre-Selassie, Abera Gezahegn, Million Wolde, Fatuma Roba, Elfinesh Kidane, Gete Wami, and of course the up-and-coming international star Kenenisa Bekele. And many more promising youths.

According to some estimates, Ethiopia is home to over 50 top-notch world-class athletes, and credit is due to the family-type atmosphere Ethiopian coaches like Drs Wolde-Meskel Kostre, Yilma Berta, Captain Zelalem Desta, and others have nurtured over the years. The rise of so many shining stars in Ethiopia would have undoubtedly been a compensation for the first Ethiopian Olympian like Gashaw, who about 12 years ago, was working for the automotive company - Moenco. Though frail as an old man, Gashaw was an 'employee' merely as a goodwill gesture of the Japanese auto company to the old Ethiopian Olympian who excelled when financial rewards were virtually unknown, and athletes remained dependent largely on the generosity of the society. Thank you, Moenco!

The countdown has begun

When we look forward to Friday when Ethiopian athletes would compete in middle-distance races, some discomforting news is already spreading. A number of our athletes may not make it to the starting blocks because of lingering injuries. Word is already out there that King Haile suffers from knee-injury, but has made up his mind to compete for an unprecedented third Olympic victory. World 10000m chapion Berhane Adere is already dropped from the list due to Achilles tendon, although Berhane has lately accused Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre of "personal vendetta." Reigning Olympic Marathon champion Gezahegn Abera 'will almost certainly miss the Athens Olympics due to Achilles heel injury,' according to AP.

Though missing such stars would have its own strong impact on the individual and group performance of our Olympians, we are consoled by the very fact that our country can easily draw raw talents from the huge athletic pool. Paris Marathon champion Anbessa Tolossa would replace Gezahegn Abera, Berhane Adere is replaced by African 10,000-meter champion Ejigayehu Dibaba, and world indoor 3,000-meter champion Meseret Defar would move up to the 5000m to replace Ejigayehu, who cannot compete in two events. Whether gold or not, however, we live by the Olympic motto: "In life, what counts is not necessarily winning, but participating!" Good luck!

This report was largely written from the perspective of what we may call, hold your breath, an oral literature. "Strange in an age of the Internet," you may say. But as long as our country has no national database which makes retrieving information possible from any part of the world, the alternative would be to resort to the traditional 'oral literature,' and share with readers what we heard and read in the past about Ethiopia's earliest Olympic participation. Understandbly, some figures and names mentioned in our story are subject to verification.