The various Olympic events, international championships, and other regional and global athletics contests used to be venues for Ethiopian runners to shine. These used to be moments for Ethiopians to shed tears while the rest of the world would watch in admiration. As of recently however, that has not been the case. It has been some time now since Ethiopians began losing races which they had been so accustomed to winning. Various reasons can be presented with one definitely being dispute and power struggles among various institutions tasked to lead and support the sport towards success. In this article, Abiy Wendifraw, who accompanied the Ethiopian team to the Tokyo Olympics, looks back at the deficiencies of the games and the dispute that followed.
Things were not right. It could be read on the faces of national team members and accompanying delegates at the boarding gate of Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Federation officials, coaches, athletes, and others including journalists who traveled to Tokyo 2020 look anxious. A few of them were busy scrolling up and down their social media feeds and almost every update seemed to confirm their anxiety. There were even rumors circulating in the Olympic village that there would be some people to be arrested when the team arrived at Bole International Airport.
When boarding started, some team members realized some colleagues were missing. The President of the Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC), Ashebir Woldegiorgis (PhD), and the EOC Chief of Mission, Eden Ashenafi, didn’t show up to depart with the rest of the team even though they would arrive in Addis Ababa the following day.
By the time the team landed in Addis, the story was already all over social media. While the media waited for the team in the VIP area of Bole airport, a group of fans who had prepared themselves for a hostile reception and another group with welcoming banners were at the gates of the terminal. Some of the team members, including journalists who were threatened by fans, stayed in the terminal for hours.
When local media reported that the team that brought only four Olympic medals including a single gold medal won by Selemon Barega in the 10,000m arrived home, there were calls for an immediate resignation of the leadership of EOC and Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), who were to blame for all the chaos from the problematic selection of athletes to the messy opening ceremony. But even after almost a year has passed, the two institutions are still struggling to close their gap.
After a series of attempts to resolve the dispute between the two institutions—most importantly between Ashebir and Derartu Tulu, the Olympic champion and head of EAF—the Ministry of Culture and Sport (MoCS) managed to bring the involved parties together for a discussion on May 22, 2022.
Dube Jilo, the then deputy at the Sports Commission during the Olympics, was in attendance to reflect on the issue and said that the Tokyo 2020 was the worst major event he could remember in his career. “With different roles in EAF, I’ve led the team at three Olympics, eight World Athletics Championships, and 17 World Cross Championships. The dispute between the two institutions dragged us down from our grace and glory. The country paid a huge price for the stubbornness of the leadership.”
According to Dube, the source of all the disputes was structural—EOC and EAF failed to align on their mandates. There was no clear direction on who made athletes’ selection and would be the lead in the preparations for the competition. The issue was not about resources; the government allocated ETB156 million—the highest in history. The two institutions should sort it out and start working together.”
The ministry’s effort to investigate the issues only between the two institutions regarding the Olympics was questioned by representatives from another federation.
“Focusing only on the relationship between EOC and EAF understates the gravity of the issue. The fact is that the Swimming Federation suffered more than any other federation during the Olympics; we are victims. Ethiopia was represented by the athlete which we did not select, and also the swimming team was accompanied by an official who was banned prior to the Olympics. Our federation never received the budget allocated for national federations in relation to the Olympics,” Dagim Zinabu, Treasurer of the Ethiopian Swimming Federation argued.
The fund disbursement issue is also one of the major claims of EAF. The national athletics regulatory body wants EOC to reimburse ETB30 million which the former claimed to have spent in relation to the athletics team’s preparations. “This will affect our participation in future international competitions and ongoing athletics development. We need the money, but that does not mean our participations rely on it,” said Yohannes Engda, acting Office Head of EAF.
Representatives of EAF and other participants insisted that the Ministry should consider intervening if the involved parties keep disputing with the Paris 2024 Olympics on the horizon. This notion was repeatedly reflected in the discussion considering the amount of money the government is allocating despite the fact that the Olympic Charter states every National Olympic Committee must be free from government interference. “We (at the Sports Commission) repeatedly tried to resolve the issue last summer, but it kept coming back over again, said Dube. The commission could have gone further but we wanted to be cautious not to cross the line of government’s interference,” said Dube.
Derartu thinks both EAF and EOC took their own lesson and would come together for better collaboration. “I think we now know our mandates and we can work together,” said the EAF President. Yohannes, who is in charge of the office that oversees the flow of all the organizational communications can feel the positive spirit to work together with EOC. “I can see goodwill between us.” EBR
10th Year • May 2022 • No. 107