Champion Mamo Wolde had a traumatic life


MAMO WOLDE is no more. The great Ethiopian distance runner, who spent almost the last decade of his life in prison, died in Addis Ababa on May 26, after a long illness. He was 70.

Wolde (pix below, left) was arrested in September 1992, released three months later, then arrested again, released and re-arrested in 1993. He was charged with the killing of a 15-year-old boy during the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam following the revolution. Wolde denied the charges till his death. But he was sentenced to six years in prison early this year. Since he had served nine years behind bars by then, he was freed. He was suffering from acute bronchitis at that time.

Wolde followed the footsteps of his idol, Abebe Bikila, in winning the Olympic marathon gold at the Mexico City Games in 1968. Thirty-two years later, the little-known, small-built Gezahgne Abera, would add his name to the Ethiopian marathon folklore by claiming the title at the Sydney Olympics.

They talked of Wolde in the interview room that day, in rather hushed tones. Abera nodded or smiled most of the time, but the official who acted as the interpreter confided that Wolde, still in prison, was being victimised for political reasons. We will never know what the truth was.

According to reports, Wolde kept saying that he was innocent. "I don't know really why I am here (prison), I know nothing of that incident," Wolde was quoted as saying in 1999. "I swear in the name of Jesus that I did not commit these crimes. It is better to kill me than accuse me."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had hired a lawyer in 1996 to defend Wolde. Bill Toomey, the American who won the decathlon gold at the Mexico City Olympics, was in the forefront of the campaign to get a fair trial for Wolde or to get him released. Toomey had hoped that he would be able to get Wolde freed, with the support of the then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, and bring him to Atlanta for the Centennial Olympics. That was not to be.

Wolde, born in the village of Diri Jille, about 60km south of Addis Ababa, came into athletics after joining the army. Like Bikila he was also a palace guard. "Bikila made me want to run, he was my guiding light," Wolde once said.

Wolde made the Ethiopian team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, running the 800m and 1500m, finishing fourth in the latter event. In 1964, he was fourth again in the 10,000 metres in Tokyo. He also competed in the marathon, which Bikila won.

The high altitude-Mexico City was an ideal venue for Wolde to take charge. He did that by claiming the silver in the 10,000 metres, fractionally behind Kenyan Naftali Temu (by a bare 0.35s by the electronic timer, though official timings showed Temu at 29:27.4 and Wolde at 29:28.0).

Exactly a week later when he lined up for the start of the marathon, Wolde knew that his idol, Bikila, was not in the best of shape and that he had to be his nation's only hope. Bikila gave up after 15 km, leading for a brief while, but Wolde held on to win. Like Bikila he, too, had become a national hero back home. No one could have guessed at that time that one day he will end up behind bars.

At the next Olympics in Munich, in 1972, Wolde won the bronze in marathon, and that was practically the end of his athletics feats. He also served as a national coach afterwards, but little was heard of him in later years. Today, a crop of talented men and women, led by the incomparable Haile Gebrselassie are keeping up the Ethiopian saga of distance running, pioneered by men like Bikila, Wolde and Miruts Yifter.