More than a half-century ago, the world marveled at the sudden surge of distance runners from Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia. Abebe Bikila, an ethnic Oromo, ushered in the first golden era of Ethiopian running by his seemingly effortless marathon triumph at the 1960 Rome games.

Since the end of last year, the world has watched in horror the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies committing a whole array of war crimes in Tigray, the northern-most province of Ethiopia. (By way of background, click here and here.) As looting, massacres, gang rapes and other atrocities have piled up, the Tigrayan runner Gudaf Tsegay’s world 1500m indoor record in Belgium hardly registered in her home region.

This week, other Tigrayan athletes let their gesture speak volumes in Addis Abeba, a gesture destined to become an iconic image in the curious genre of sports-related social protests. As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of the athletes in black were sanctioned, though the Ethiopian Olympic Committee immediately issued a warning against protests at this summer’s Tokyo games. The august bosses of course remembered an Oromo runner’s handcuff gesture at the finishing line of the 2016 Olympic marathon.

Athletes from Tigray at the opening ceremony of national games in Addis Abeba, 6 April 2021.

It so happens that the Addis Abeba National Stadium is a rather familiar venue to me. In the course of my youthful Abyssinian expeditions I managed to interview Haile Gebreselassie (father Tigrayan, mother Amhara) and Kenenisa Bekele (Oromo) in the stadium premises; Miruts Yifter (Tigrayan), one of my childhood heroes, stopped to chat with me at the main gate; and after a few failed attempts Derartu Tulu (Oromo) agreed to be interviewed in a cafeteria across the street.

Four runners, three ethnic lineages, nine Olympic gold medals, and myriad world records.

I guess they were all proud to represent Ethiopia whenever and wherever they raced, though the empire itself had underwent tremendous changes since Abebe Bikila’s days. Today it’s called the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, tomorrow something entirely else: the current genocidal war in Tigray and other, slightly lesser conflicts have thoroughly disgraced the notion of Ethiopian identity.

Do athletes such as Gudaf Tsegay want to don the Ethiopian vest any more? If some of them still do, will they be despised by their own people – the decimated, tortured Tigrayan people?

Be that as it may, I was delighted to learn about the anthropologist Michael Crawley’s book project which came to fruition last November – just a few days after Addis Abeba launched an all-out attack against Tigray. Under the circumstances, Out of Thin Air can be read as a lengthy farewell to the 60-year-old phenomenon known as Ethiopian running. ’Ethiopia does not have a problem with finding talent,’ observes a local (Oromo) coach to the author, ’we have a problem of creating unity.’

Empires being artificial entities, unity is and will remain an elusive dream in the Abyssinian highlands, let alone in the culturally even more diverse lowlands.

While the break-up of Ethiopia will be welcomed by a number of oppressed nations, the world outside might find the outcome slightly intimidating – so far as success in distance running is concerned. Instead of three Ethiopians, three runners from Oromia, Tigray and Amhara each will soon stand at the starting line.

May the advent of post-Ethiopian running be as swift and painless as possible!


P.S. After having published this blog post with the necessary caveat (‘As far as I  have been able to ascertain…’) I was informed that the protesting athletes were punished after all. Their daily allowances were apparently cut and return flight tickets to Tigray cancelled. Besides, they sat on the track when the sacrosanct national anthem was played, which might well indicate that the rupture is beyond repair.

P.P.S. The formidable Derartu Tulu, head of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and two-time Olympic champion (1992 and 2000), has sided with the protesting athletes.

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