Mamo Wolde; Won Olympic Gold, Bronze
Mamo Wolde, an Ethiopian distance runner who won medals in two Olympics, including a gold in the marathon in the 1968 Mexico City Games, but spent much of the last decade of his life in prison, has died. He was believed to be 70 or 71.
Afflicted with bronchial and liver problems, Wolde died May 26 at his home in Addis Ababa.
Wolde’s rise to world prominence and fall from grace occurred against the backdrop of the political turmoil and civil war that has been a part of the Ethiopian fabric since the ouster of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
A member of Selassie’s palace guard, Wolde survived the emperor’s overthrow and the imposition of a harsh Marxist regime.
Wolde’s troubles began after years of civil war in which tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed, and the 1991 exile of the country’s strongman, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Wolde, who apparently was a member of a local council called the kebele, was detained in 1993 with hundreds of others and held without specific charges by the new ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Despite monitoring of his case by the International Olympic Committee and Amnesty International, he languished in one of Addis Ababa’s worst prisons for three years. In 1996, he was finally charged with a crime: shooting and killing a 15-year-old boy, which he vehemently denied. After legal proceedings that lasted five years, he was convicted of the crime.
The last decade of his life was a far cry from the prominence he had found as a member of the elite group of long-distance runners that brought worldwide attention to Africa.
Born Degaga Wolde in a village about 40 miles south of Addis Ababa, Wolde was orphaned at an early age after the death of his father, a farmer, and then his mother.
Raised by his godfather until he was old enough to join the army, Wolde became a member of Selassie’s elite palace guard. Membership in the guard allowed him access to a better education and opportunities to compete in athletic events.
It was there that he met the legendary Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia’s first Olympic medalist who won the marathon at the 1960 and 1964 games. The two men trained together and became friends.
Wolde’s first Olympic experience came in the 1956 Games in Melbourne when he competed in the 800 and 1,500 meters, finishing last in both qualifying heats.
He returned to Olympic competition in 1964 in Tokyo, running the 10,000 meters and the marathon, but again failed to win a medal.
At the 1968 games, he ran a sensational 1,500-meter race, losing to Naftail Temu, the first Kenyan to win a gold medal, by 4 yards.
Days later, Wolde and Bikila were entered in the marathon. Bikila dropped out of the race with a leg injury just after the halfway point and Wolde took control of the pace in Mexico City’s high altitude and never looked back. He finished a full three minutes ahead of his nearest rival. He was so far ahead of the field that he completed a victory lap of the stadium before the silver medalist, Kenji Kimihara of Japan, crossed the finish line. Wolde’s time was 2 hours, 20 minutes and 26.4 seconds.
He was treated as a national hero upon his return to Ethiopia. Songs were written in his honor and he received a promotion to the rank of captain in Selassie’s guards.
Four years later at the age of 40, he would surpass his Mexico City performance with his fastest marathon time ever--2 hours, 15 minutes and 8 seconds. However, the rest of the world had caught up with him; Wolde finished third in a race won by Frank Shorter of the U.S.
After the 1972 Games, Wolde retired from competition to take up coaching. But by then Ethiopia was facing famine and a budding revolt against Selassie’s rule. Two years later, the emperor was out, overthrown by scores of young military officers.
What happened to Wolde after the fall of Selassie is unclear. It appears certain that he served in a kebele, the local councils that administered parts of Addis Ababa under the Mengistu regime. The kebeles had wide-ranging powers, which included tax collecting and settling local disputes. But each kebele also had a Revolutionary Guard that had more Draconian powers.
There is no doubt that human rights abuses were committed under Mengistu’s regime. What is in question is Wolde’s role, if any, in the death of a 15-year-old boy in 1978.
The government, according to a New York Times report, said Wolde was a high-ranking official of his local kebele and also the head of the local Revolutionary Guards. As such, the government said, it was not unusual for Wolde to lead an armed unit that picked up counter-revolutionaries under orders of the central government.
Wolde denied being a member of the Revolutionary Guards, and said that in 1978 he was working only as a track coach. Wolde’s lawyer objected to the prosecution’s case, noting that no exact date was presented for the crime. Nor were a weapon or any witnesses produced.
Nevertheless, an Ethiopian court found Wolde guilty in January and sentenced him to six years in prison. The sentence was retroactive to the date he was first detained and he was finally released.
He was returned to his wife and three children in failing health. To the end, he maintained his innocence.
Wolde was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Addis Ababa beside Ethiopia’s other Olympic champion, Bikila, who died in 1973.
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