Oromo Athlete – Mamo Wolde Profile, in prison for nine years

29 May

Name – Mamo Waldao’o; the name Mamo is derived from an Oromo clan name Mamoo; Waldao’o is the original name, but later modified to Wolde
Date of Birth – June 12, 1932. Mamo’s father, a peasant farmer, died when he was a very young boy, as did his mother. He was brought up by his godfather.
Place of Birth – in the village of Dirre Jille in Ada’a district, Oromia Region, 60 km South of Addis Ababa
Parents – Waldao’o (“Wolde”) Degaga (father), Geneme Gobena (mother)
Weight – 119 lbs (54 kg)
Height – 170 cm
Nationality – Oromo Ethiopian
Languages – Oromiffa (mother-tongue), Amharic
Club – Imperial Body Guard
Coach – Negussie Roba
Beginning of Carrier – 400m; 4 x 400m relay; 800m; 1500m; 5000m; 10000m; Marathon.
Championship Performance –Silver, 10000m 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico; Gold, Marathon 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico; Bronze, Marathon 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Wife – Aynalem Biru died in 1987; second wife Aberash Semhate, very young
Children – Samuel with Biru; Adiss Alem and Tabor with Semhate.
Died – May 26, 2002 in Finfinne, 4 months after his release from prison

July 16, 2011 (Ayyaantuu) – Mamo grew up in a traditional upbringing spending most of his childhood in Dirre Jille where he attended a “qes” schooling. In June of 1951, he was hired by the Imperial Body Guard. At the armed forces, Mamo was able to further his education. In 1953, he was transferred to the Second Battalion of the Imperial Guard and was sent to Korea as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. Mamo spent 2 years in Korea where he had a distinguished military service.

Considering the honors that he would eventually win, the Olympic career of Mamo Wolde had very humble beginnings. Wolde first represented his country at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, where he finished last in his heat of both the 800m and the 1500m, and then ran the third leg on Ethiopia’s 4 x 400m relay team which also finished last in their heat, over 12 seconds behind the field. He made a much more successful return in 1964 at Tokyo, where he finished 4th in a very fast run 10000m, only losing contact with the three medalists in the last couple of laps. He also contested the marathon at Tokyo, but did not finish the race.

Mamo Wolde Olympic games 1968 Mexico City marathon 2:20:27

The distance running events at the 1968 Olympic Games favored athletes such as Wolde, who had been born and raised at high altitude. However, despite this advantage, the 36 year-old Wolde still had to contend with much younger opponents. In the 10000m final, the field was gradually whittled down until with one lap remaining only Wolde and Naftali Temu (Kenya) remained. Wolde shot ahead at the bell, leading Temu in a frantic sprint around the last lap, until Temu passed him with only 50 meters remaining to win the gold, with Mamo less than a second behind in second place.

In the marathon, one week later, Wolde and Temu started relatively slowly, but gradually moved through the field, catching the leaders near the halfway mark, and then breaking away to stage another two-man battle. Wolde broke away from Temu just before 30km, and proceeded to run away from the field, crossing the line  over 3 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. Wolde made his last Olympic appearance in the marathon at Munich in 1972, where he won the bronze medal at 40 years of age.

Turmoil and Trials

The Emperor was deposed in September 1974 by a military junta known as the Derg. Ferocious infighting ensued, from which Mengistu Hailemariam emerged as the leader, steering the country towards Soviet influence.

Mamo Wolde prior to his incarceration in 1989

At its worst, people were shot in the streets and all forms of torture thrived. No one kept count of the number of victims, but it is now believed that some 10,000 lives were lost between 1977 and ’78. According to the verdict delivered in January 2002, Mamo Wolde took part in the terror by shooting a 15-year youth in May of 1978. The victim was suspected of opposing Hailemariam.

“I couldn’t find any witnesses to testify for me,” Wolde regretted. “They had all passed away by the time my case was brought to court. And most witnesses for the prosecution based their statements on hearsay only.” Mamo considered himself innocent. He served more than nine years in prison.

Although Wolde remained on the military payroll as a sports lecturer, he also served on his own local political committee, though the assignment was voluntary only in name, he said. “For two years I headed The Development Committee of Kebele 11. Our committee looked after water supply and housing projects, for example. There were no political duties whatsoever.” Nevertheless, the system was created as means of political control. Wolde found himself in a position he did not like.

“It must be emphasized that those were revolutionary times. Orders were given from above, and you disobeyed them at your own peril.”

Prisoner and Hero

Wolde served as a marathon coach in the 1980’s before his life, and Ethiopia, were turned upside-down again. Since the Derg, Mengistu;s regime, had been just another satellite regime of the Soviets, it did not withstand the breakdown of Communism, and Ethiopian liberation armies routed Mengistu in May 1991. Ironically, for Mamo Wolde and thousands of other officials of the Derg, it resulted in detention without formal charges.

In fact, Wolde survived three stints in prison. The first two were relatively brief, then in December 1992 he bid the family farewell for the third time. None of them expected Wolde to be jailed for so long.

“I was summoned for interrogations only. As soon as I turned up at the police station, however, I was arrested and taken to Kerchele,” he said.

The Kerchele prison house on the outskirts of Addis Ababa is commonly known as “The End of the World.” Although Wolde was held in the most closely guarded section of Kerchele, he recalled, “Guards and prison officers treated me well, even though they were not told to do so. But they knew me and respected me as an Olympic athlete. Unlike most of my cellmates, I was never even handcuffed.”

The International Olympic Committee hired a lawyer for him in 1997, and by that time he had finally been charged with a crime. Wolde’s lawyer was granted access to him and family members were allowed to meet him every weekend. Moreover, athletes like Kip Keino and Kenny Moore flew to Addis Ababa and appealed for his release.

“Foreign visitors were always given promises, but once they had left the country, nothing ever happened… But I never gave up hope myself, because I knew I was innocent. Every night I said my prayers and awaited the following day without fear.”

Mamo Wolde and Aberash after his release from prison in early 2002

The long-overdue verdict was given on January 18, 2002. Wolde was found guilty of murder and sentenced to six years. However, in light of the almost ten years he had already served, he was freed.

All forms of physical exercise had been forbidden at Kerchele. Now free, Wolde went for a brisk walk every day. The outings turned into social events, with passers-by congratulating him on his release.

Sadly, the court sentence had deprived Wolde of his pension as a former captain and he hoped to resume coaching activities in order to support himself and his family. Thankfully, he had not been forgotten by the athletic community.

“An athletes’ delegation paid a visit after my release. Haile Gebrselassie handed over a donation of 30,000 birr [about $4,000], of which two-thirds came from the athletes themselves. The rest was given by the Ethiopian Olympic Committee.”

At this point, Wolde excused himself briefly. Upon returning, he offered gifts to his guests—two Olympic pins from 1964 and 1968. In consideration of their sentimental value, we tried to refuse them, to no avail. Wolde had already hosted us in a cordial manner, and his generosity bore further testimony to the quality of the man.

Mamo’s Final Days

Addis Ababa: The desecrated tombstones of Abebe (left) and Mamo. Amazingly, the only effort to start a fundraising campaign to repair the tombstone came from Ito Takashi, Director of Agence Shot in Tokyo, a Japanese track and field photography service agency. Finally, after 3 years, 8 months and 14 days since the desecration of the tombstones, a newly restored tombstone of Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde, was officially unveiled in the presence of family members, friends and other dignitaries.

Those who visited Wolde while he was on remand found a dignified but increasingly wheezy man, stricken with bronchitis, with failing hearing and eyesight, and complaining of pain in his liver.

Returning home to his wife and three children, Wolde beamed with delight and sadness. He knew that he was dying, because his body was weakened by the chronic diseases he contracted in the prison cell.

He died on May 26, 2002 having spent his final months at his mud and straw house in Addis Ababa, built with money given to him by Haile Selassie. Against one wall was a low cabinet with a few trophies and a television. He was survived by his three children and wife Aberash.

In December 2007,  the tombstones of former Olympics marathon gold medalists Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde were desecrated by unknown persons.  According to Abeselom Yihdego, long standing athletics supporter, philanthropist and owner of Keste Damena Foam Factory, the tombstones were torn down at night.

With usual scapegoat, the TPLF regime blamed the OLF for the desecration of the tombstones. “I have no doubt in my mind that this is the work of anti-Ethiopian elements who have problems with the achievements of her heroes and heroines. Possible suspects are secret OLF agents like Woizero Arogit with the help of regurgitating Shabea agent like Aboy Lekim, who have been sniffing little mistakes to degrade proud Ethiopians and disintegrate their country Ethiopia. There are no Ethiopians who do not love and respect their country’s heroes, it is only Shabeas who are operating inside Ethiopia including in Arat-kilo, and short sighted and idiotic OLF who have problems with Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinet”, said government agent.

“I heard about the situation on Thursday morning and when I reached the spot, the life size statues of both athletes were cut from the legs. My father’s statue was especially damaged and that is a very sad thing,” Samuel Mamo, son of Major Mamo Wolde said.

However, the Ethiopian people today believe that it was the work of TPLF agents to vandalize the tombstones  to blame on OLF and others.  The government never tried to restore back the tombstones. The only effort to start a fundraising campaign to repair the tombstone came from Ito Takashi, Director of Agence Shot in Tokyo, a Japanese track and field photography service agency. Finally, after 3 years, 8 months and 14 days since the desecration of the tombstones, a newly restored tombstone of Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde, was officially unveiled in the presence of family members, friends and other dignitaries

In the USA

At just 10 years old, Tabor Wolde, his sister Addis, then 12, and their mother, Aberash, fled Ethiopia to the United States. They escaped in the shadow of the death of their father. They were able to come to the United States with the help of Joel and Marty Button, of Stillwater.  The two children are interested in sports too.  In April 2008, Addis, who ran cross-country in high school, started to feel sluggish and tired after every run.  In November 2009, Tabor Wolde stepped up — the fifth kicker in a shootout for Mahtomedi High School in the Class A Minnesota soccer semi-finals — and confidently struck the ball low and fast, past the goalkeeper to give his team a 5-4 shootout victory. His team went on to win the state championship, where he scored another goal.

– Click here to read about Mamo’s Ordeal in Woyyaane’s Prison



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