By Medihane Ekubamichael @Medihane
Addis Abeba – Athletics has been one of the top global events that made Ethiopia recognized through its world-class athletes; since the Olympic gold medalist Abebe Bikila won his and Africa’s first gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, running barefoot, and later his second gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the name Ethiopia is synonymous with athletics.
Abebe’s inspiration paved the way for the emergence of many more record-holding, world-class athletes, who hail from all over Ethiopia, from Oromia, Tigray, Amhara, to SNNP regions over the next decades. The spark in Ethiopia’s successive glory, however, was ignited when legendary athlete Derartu Tulu pulled a stunning win in the 10,000m women final at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, becoming Africa’s first.
Since then, for Ethiopians, athletics is nothing but a fixture of great memories, joys, pride and togetherness all over the country. Back-to-back victories from the 9th World Championships that produced the “green flood” anecdote, to the era of the “fastest family” on earth (the Dibaba sisters) anecdote, the name Ethiopia is indisputably a cherished brand in the global athletics village.
Something similar happened at the 18th World Athletics Championships, too. But unlike in the past, the celebrations, the joys, and the pride are not shared by all Ethiopians, most importantly, by the parents in Tigray, who birthed and raised the heroines who brought in three of the four gold team Ethiopia scooped up.
World Athletics Championship 2022
The 18th World Athletics Championships, hosted by the United States at the Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, from July 15–24, 2022 came to an end placing Ethiopia next only to the host United States with 10 medals leading Jamaica and Kenya on the 3rd and 4th ranks.
Led by Athlete Derartu Tullu, now the president of Ethiopian Athletics Federation, team Ethiopia brought home a total of 10 medals. Letesenbet Gidey brought Ethiopia’s first gold in 10,000 meters at the WCH championships in a breathtaking finishing, defeating Hellen Obiri and Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi of Kenya in a world-record time at 30:09.94. Tamirat Tola won the second gold medal in the men’s marathon while Gotytom Gebreslase won the third gold in the women’s marathon; Gudaf Tsegay brought the fourth gold on 5000 meters for Ethiopia.
Mosinet Geremew, in the men’s marathon, Lamecha Girma, in 3000 meters steeplechase, again Gudaf Tsegay, in the 1500 meters, and Werkuha Getachew, in the 3000 meters steeplechase brought four silver medals for Ethiopia in the championship. Whereas, Dawit Seyaum, in the 5000 meters, and Mekides Abebe, in the 3000 meters won two bronze medals for Ethiopia.
Two faces of celebrating victory
Although the athletes of Tigray have repeatedly proved themselves to the country by achieving great victories, they could not share their joy with their parents because all lines of communication connecting the people of Tigray with the world have been blocked by the government that is now expressing happiness with the results of Tigray athletes.
Gidey Tadesse and Tekie Bokretsiyon are the parents of Letesenbet Gidey, who won the 10,000 meters race. When they were asked how they heard about their daughter’s victory, they said, “We forgot about our daughter’s achievements and heard about it through rumors. The reason for this is that there is no electricity so that we cannot watch TV and there is no telephone so that we cannot get information on the phone.
When she wasn’t comfortable, she checked on her parents by phone. But now the parents and children have not seen each other for two years. “A parent knows how painful it is to lose track of parents and children in person or by phone for two years,” said Gidey, father of Letesenbet from Samre woreda where Letesenbet’s parents live.
Letesenbet could not hear or see her parents who were happy with her results; Her parents could not see the joy of their child and thus the parents who have not heard from their child for two years, in a televised message said, “Our daughter, stay strong wherever you are and we hope that this time will pass and we will meet again in peace.”
In the 18th World Athletics Championship being held in Oregon, the mother of the athlete Gotytom , who won the gold medal in the women’s marathon, expressed her happiness with the result and sent a message to her daughter from the Tigray region.
Her mother, Berekhytu Kasa and her father Gebreslase Teklezgi live in a house where athlete Gotytom Gebreslase was raised in a village called Mai Qayah of Inderta woreda in Tigray region. Her mother said to VOA that they heard that she had won the marathon at 10 o’clock in the evening on the day of the competition.
“I heard it broadcast on television in the evening. I wept with her when she said, ‘like the rest of the Ethiopian people, my parents would have been happy to hear my results’. I am very happy but my joy is fleeting. Because when you won before, you used to call us directly. But now, she has been competing for two years now, not what she hears in the media, but we talk to her on the phone,” she said. “I am very happy but my happiness is only half. Because before, she used to call us directly when she won. But since two years, when she competes, she hears about it in the media, but we don’t talk to her on the phone,” she added.
Her mother said that due to the lack of telecommunication services in the Tigray region, she could not meet her daughter, athlete Gotytom . She said that she went to the border area of the region seven months ago and was able to speak with her daughter over the phone. “Seven months ago, I went to Almata and contacted her on the phone. But after that, what we could do is to send her a voice message through people. We also send her back a voice message in a similar manner.” She added that her ability to win in this difficult time is a sign of her strength. “I am very happy that she was able to carry everything despite her longing to see us. It is God’s will that she made it while she is unable to meet her family,” she said.
Berekheitu, talking about Gotytom ‘s childhood wishes, said: ” Gotytom was happy with those who were happy and sad with those who were sad, and she was strong. She was into athletics from school. People used to say to us ‘why are you doing that contrary to our culture?’ when she was running in shorts, considered taboo for girls. But I knew she was strong and encouraged her to do whatever she wanted. She became strong and became an athlete by God’s will, but I wished that she would become a journalist, from the narration she used to practice in the house,” she said.
She conveyed this message to her daughter, wishing her peace: “My daughter, you have been honoring me since you were a child.” I wish to kiss your child, and don’t be afraid, be happy, Tomorrow will dawn, people will meet and keep it strong. My wish is for peace with my people, and like my people, I wish for parents to meet with their child and I wish to meet with all my children.”
Team and Athletes reaction
The athletes in the team demonstrated a decent and sound sportsperson ethics and fair play characters. On the other, for the tournaments that were accompanied by demonstrations along with supports from Tegaru communities, the team is lead is presumed to highly restrict and control athletes’ reactions and responses at all times as has been noted in an interview, a sharp decline to a Tigray related question by interpreting staff. For a team with at least three athletes from Tigray and whose parents are disconnected with them due to the continued blockade of telecom services, bank services, electric disconnection while undersupplied with medicine, fuel, fertilizers, and food aid leading to many fatalities on daily basis, letting uncontrolled and uncensored press conference would seam high stake.
during the women’s 5000 meters a fan named Mearg Mekonen originally from the Tigray region, but now living in Texas stormed the track holding Tigray’s flag as Gudaf won the race in gold place, hugging up Letesenbet and Gudaf.
Athlete Derartu Tullu has been a kind caring mother, including during the challenges to secure visas, as always. She has decorated the team’s spirit with her everlasting cheers, and warm encouragement.
Gold medalist Gotytom Geberselase, reacted to the glimpse of short news footage about parents whom she has been disconnected for many months now, she wrote in Tigrigna saying, “What can’t God do? thank you God! 18 months later I saw my parents on TV with my own eyes. I felt like I almost spent it at home with you today. May the happiness be in full my dear parents. My colleagues here, may you be as happy as I am.” She added gratitude in English praising God and those who helped her make things possible.
Tigrayan athletes and the Diaspora – Cannot have the cake and eat it too
According to Athletics Weekly “Free Tigray” protestors demonstrating on the concourse at the World Champs in Eugene. One banner reads: “The Tigrayan-Ethiopian athletes’ families are under siege. Gidey hasn’t spoken to her family for 2 years! Pray for Tigray.”
Meanwhile, during the women’s 5000 meters a fan named Mearg Mekonen originally from the Tigray region, but now living in Texas stormed the track holding Tigray’s flag as Gudaf won the race in gold place, hugging Letesenbet and Gudaf. He said he had not planned on running onto the track until he felt overwhelmed with emotion and needed to do something adding that his goal was to raise global awareness for what is happening now in the Tigray region and it would drag risk on themselves and loved ones for the athletes to speak up. “I am trying to be a voice for the athletes and for the people.” Meareg said.
It was also noted that Letesenbet did not speak to media after the race with this incident; Tsegay was asked about her feelings about the fan with Tigray’s flag storming to her as she celebrates her victory, but was whisked away by Ethiopian team staff before she could answer, saying “sorry no this question is not good for us
On the other hand the celebration and delights rejoicing the medal winners have continued in the rest of Ethiopia especially by the sport loving citizens including the diaspora community that has been warmly supporting the athletes on the tournaments. Whereas government officials and affiliated figures have identified the victory as the ground to demonstrate “a strong unity of Ethiopians despite hard times” all the way from the very first gold medal on the champion through the team’s return back home. During the farewell ceremony held for the returning team at the Washington airport, Amb. Seleshi Bekele (PhD) Ethiopian Ambassador to the US, said that diplomatic and image-building mission while showing that Ethiopia is always victorious.
Amb. Taye Atskesilasie, the Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations, on the same incident recalled the all-rounded international pressure Ethiopia sustained over the past two years. yet he related this victory as “a testimony that Ethiopia has won again”. He further underlined that the sport as social diplomacy and implied the significance of the victory on diplomatic endeavors.
Nonetheless, there has been no sign of at least diplomatic solicitude to the people of Tigray who have been punished with a lack of basic needs and dying over lack of simple medical supplies and nutrition.
“Tigrayan athletes did not get the opportunity to meet their families yet; I surely anticipate our honorable President to remove this thing…”
The athletics team has arrived back home last night and the Addis Abeba city administration has already announced authorization to give various awards to the athletes and delegates who brought medals. Preceded by a welcome and gratitude ceremony for the Ethiopian athletics delegation.
As part of the welcoming ceremony, team Ethiopia was hosted by President Sahlework Zewide at the national palace. It was an event the “mother” of Ethiopian athletes Derartu did not want to waste to speak on the need to reconnect the athletes with their parents. “Tigrayan athletes did not get the opportunity to meet their families yet; I surely anticipate our honorable President to remove this thing. Likewise, we think our government will remove this thing thing too, because to make our happiness a reality and to line up wholeheartedly for the next, we have athletes there, Tigrayan athletes who couldn’t come for us,” Derartu said, highlighting the importance of the athletes both to start working where they are, for those who are needed” to come here”. She asked both the federal and Tigray state governments to work together to make this a reality. “There are many fundamental issues and the government knows them,” she said, one among these fundamental issues she didn’t skip to mention and asked “politely” was the need to reopen the roads leading to Tigray.
Until now though, the heroines from Tigray who shone bright at Oregon and brought Ethiopia next only to the mighty America, wont meet their parents, nor speak with them. Or will they? AS