Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ethiopia on the Map

Congratulations, Marine Corps marathoners! Well done. I will do a post-mortem on MCM before the weekend is out, but for now …

I want to talk about “Ethiopia on the Map.” That is, not where Ethiopia is on the Map, but who has put "Ethiopia on the Map."

One of the reasons I became so interested in running is that, well, Ethiopians seem to be so darn good at it, and at the highest level of the sport. And who wouldn’t want to be associated with success?

Often times, it seems like everything is going wrong with and in Ethiopia. When Ethiopia makes the news, it is in one way or another associated with suffering such as starvation, flooding, AIDS, war, and deadly election violence. Added to the mix are the relatively new categories the western news media has discovered about Ethiopia including religious conflict, female genital mutilation, and even animal cruelty.

So, with all the negative publicity Ethiopia continues to receive, it is disappointing to see how little is written or talked about the things that are “right with Ethiopia.” Even more baffling is how little an interest there is on such things in the general population of Ethiopia. Simply put, we have not capitalized on things that we have going for us. A prime example of this is distance running.

When the Olympic Games come around every four years, interest level in track and field seems to reach fever pitch. Songs are written, videos are made, and millions come out on the street to greet the athletes. But during the intermediate years, it takes a stunning world record performance at a minimum to get the attention of the average Ethiopian. Events such as the 2006 Berlin Marathon, where Haile Gebreselassie set an Ethiopian marathon record, are at best side bars where all the musings are on why he failed to break the world record and advice on how better he should prepare for next time (by the way, that next time is Dec. 3, 2006 at the Fukuoka Marathon, and there will most definitely be no record set).

To be sure, distance running is going well in Ethiopia. Notwithstanding all the medal counts from Olympics and World Championships, we can simply look at the iconic figures Ethiopian distance running has produced. Unlike the twin evils of Mengistu and Meles, these are people who have put "Ethiopia on the Map” for the right reason. Just to name a couple, there is the one and only Haile Gebrselassie, who has broken countless world records, with a beaming smile that endeared him, and thus Ethiopia, to the western media, and by extension to the whole world.

There is also Derartu Tulu, the first black African woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Her fierce competitive spirit, only hidden by her modesty, was key at the Barcelona Olympics in bringing Ethiopia back to Olympic glory of yesteryear after Ethiopia’s long absence from the Olympics during Mengitu’s reign. Derartu would go on to win another Olympic Gold Medal eight years later, and after having become a mother. Her legacy is filtering down to the younger generation of Ethiopian runners, and women in general.

However, the one person that single-handedly put "Ethiopia on the Map” was the incomparable Abebe Bikila. Abebe burst on to the world’s stage virtually out of nowhere and with immense force. One can make a strong argument that Abebe is the one person, in the post World War II era, that managed to put Ethiopia front and center on the world’s stage. In an era where blacks were thought to be inferior when it came to distance running, one can simply imagine the impact of an unknown black African, running barefoot, and winning the marathon, the signature event of the entire Olympics and the culmination of the entire Games. The effect is further compounded when we consider that Abebe set a world record on that run and the host city was no less than Rome itself where “all roads lead.” The legend of "Barefoot Bikila" was born on that day.

Of course, Abebe’s win in 1960 opened the floodgates for all the African runners that followed in his footsteps. But one wonders what is left of Abebe Bikila’s legacy and why there isn't even a government operated shrine that propagates his legacy to future generations.

Several years ago, I was happy to get my hands on a book written by Abebe’s daughter, Tsige, who did a commendable job of telling her father’s story. The book is titled Triumph and Tragedy and the stories recounted in the book are well complemented with rare photographs. The personal hand written note that Tsige added along with an autographed copy of the book was a definite delight to receive. But I wonder how many copies Tsige was able to sell.

Once again, it would seem non-Ethiopians are doing more to preserve our country’s legacy than ourselves. The New York Road Runners Club (organizers of the New York City Marathon) gives an annual award named “Abebe Bikila Award” and this year’s award was given to Paula Radcliffe at a ceremony this morning at United Nations Plaza in New York City. Radcliffe said “It is a great honour for me to receive such an award. The name alone represents so much for distance running and it is a huge privilege to join the list of outstanding athletes and previous winners who have done so much for our sport."

So, how many awards do we know that are named after an Ethiopian and presented on such a huge stage? While we are busy reading about what the western media tell us about Ethiopia’s starvation, flooding, AIDS, war, etc. we should pause to ask ourselves what “Abebe Bikila” means to us and how to tell that meaning to the next generation of Ethiopians.

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