Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cheers Ethiopia!

As we are getting ready to bid farewell to the year 2006 and welcome 2007 (well, that’s when this post was started), it is only fitting to add one more post to say cheers!

Happy New Year to all readers of Roocha! And a special cheers is in order for all Ethiopian Olympians. Although the past year has gone by without much mention of this, 2006 marked a milestone for Ethiopia's participation at the Olympic Games. It was 50 years ago, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, that Ethiopia made its first appearance at the Olympic Games.

There has not been much commemoration of this Golden Jubilee of Ethiopian Olympic participation. In fact, I became aware of this milestone only after hearing it mentioned several months ago by the magnificent journalist Negussie Aklilu of
Voice of America’s Amharic language service. Thank you Ato Negussie and VOA Amharic for bringing this to our attention. It is a shame that we do not take time to celebrate significant historical milestones such as this. The need for celebration is highlighted in an interesting article I came across sometime ago about how Australians planned to commemorate the 1956 Melbourne Olympics- “The Friendly Games.”

By any measure, Ethiopia’s record at the Olympic Games has been outstanding. It seems that every four years Ethiopians not only win medals (which very few countries do to begin with) but also break barriers and achieve feats previously out of reach.

So, in the spirit of a new year’s tradition, let’s count down the significant accomplishment of Ethiopians at the Olympics over the past 50 years. Obviously, each entry is worthy of a separate post (note to self!) but it would not be right to let 2006 expire without making mention of these achievements, even in a hurried fashion. So, here goes:

Derartu Tulu wins Gold Medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics 10000M race, eight years after her first gold medal. It is an amazing, and quite likely unmatchable, achievement to win a track race at two Olympic Games with this much time in between. This race is also notable for having Ethiopians finish 1-2 with Gete Wami claiming the Silver Medal.

Haile Gebrselassie wins Gold Medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics 10000M race. Although this was anticipated by all Ethiopians, the victory lifts the spirit of an entire nation. In advance of the Atlanta Olympics, Haile had already attracted the attention of international media by setting multiple world records on the track as well as his public relations savvy off the track. His victory in Atlanta was the deciding factor in picking Haile’s life story as the one to be featured in the movie Endurance.

Kennenisa Bekele wins Gold Medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics 1000M race. In the same race, Sileshi Sihine wins the Silver Medal and Haile Gebrselassie finishes fifth. But this race was more than winning medals. The team work displayed by Kennenisa and Sileshi to help out the injured Haile served as the inspiration for a popular Ethiopian music video by Tewodros Kassahun. Kennenisa and Sileshi were willing to risk their medal chances by slowing down in mid-race to allow Haile to catch up with the leaders. This was clearly the race were the “baton” was passed from one generation to the next.

Gezahegne Abera wins the 2000 Olympic Marathon in Sydney giving Ethiopia an unprecedented fourth Olympic Gold Medal in Men’s Marathon. Reclaiming of the Marathon Gold medal after 32 years sends Ethiopians into euphoria. In the same race, Ethiopian Tesfaye Tola wins the Bronze medal.

Fatuma Roba wins Ethiopia’s first Gold Medal in the Women Olympic Marathon at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Although Fatuma was a relatively unknown runner in 1996, she has gone on to win the next three Boston Marathons, easily distinguishing herself as one of the greatest women marathoners in the world.

Miruts Yifter wins two Gold Medals in the 5000M and 10000M race at the 1980 Moscow Olympics earning a rare double victory in these distances. Although Miruts had won a Bronze medal in the 5000M at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, his double victory in Moscow puts him among all time running greats. Miruts’ achievement distinguishes him as the only Ethiopian Olympian to win two Gold Medals at the same Olympics.

Derartu Tulu wins the 1000M at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, earning the first medal by an Ethiopian woman and the first Gold Medal by a black African woman. Her victory paves the way for all the great Ethiopian woman runners that followed in her footsteps. Derartu’s success served notice that Ethiopian women runners are as much talented as the men.

Mamo Wolde makes it a three-peat for Ethiopia in Olympic Marathon by winning the Gold Medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Mamo also won a Silver Medal in the 10000M race foreshadowing the success to come in future track races. Mamo’s victory in the marathon showed that Abebe Bikila’s victory was not just a one man show but highlighted the special talent of Ethiopian runners.

Abebe Bikila repeats as Olympic Marathon Champion at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. With another Olympic Gold Medal to go with the one he won four years earlier in Rome, Abebe clearly achieves the status of a running legend that is revered to this very day. The fact that Abebe won the Tokyo race after having his appendix removed only six weeks earlier adds to the legend.

Abebe Bikila wins the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome, running barefoot, setting a new world record, and becoming the first African to win an Olympic Gold Medal. This victory would be quite significant if taken in and of itself. But from a vantage point of 45+ years in the future, it is indisputable that Abebe’s victory in Rome is single-handedly responsible for the magnitude of success African runners have achieved in the years that followed.