Mamo Wolde, who died at 69 last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,
ran as softly as an Abyssinian cat, and his victory in the 1968
Olympic marathon in Mexico City, after countryman Abebe Bikila's
wins in 1960 and 1964, made the marathon Ethiopia's own.
Wolde was fated to embody his nation's anguish. Not long after
he took the marathon bronze at the '72 Games in Munich (I
finished fourth), Ethiopia's emperor, Haile Selassie, was
overthrown. For 14 years Mengistu Haile Mariam ruled a Marxist
dictatorship known as the Derg. Revolutionaries killed tens of
thousands. Wolde's medals saved him, but when the Derg was
ousted in 1991, the new regime swept up thousands of Mariam
sympathizers and, in 1993, imprisoned Wolde as well. For four
years he wasn't charged; then he was accused of taking part in
the 1978 murder of a 15-year-old boy. Wolde swore he was
innocent and that an army officer had done it. Wolde said
another officer then ordered Wolde to shoot a second bullet into
the body, but that he, before witnesses, purposely missed.
I visited Wolde in a crumbling Addis Ababa prison in 1995. The
ensuing SI story (Dec. 4, 1995) sparked a relay of Olympians
appealing for his release. Mexico City champions Bill Toomey
(decathlon) and Kip Keino (1,500 meters) brought to Wolde and the
Ethiopian government a letter from IOC president Juan Antonio
Samaranch inviting him to carry the flame at the Atlanta Games.
Ethiopia refused to consider the request. When Wolde's trial
began in 1999, none of the prosecution's witnesses could say they
had seen Wolde do anything wrong. "It was all hearsay," he said.
Nevertheless, the prosecutor was given three more years to build
a case while Wolde rotted in prison with bronchitis and liver
problems. But the great, uncrackable marathoner outlasted
Ethiopia. In January of this year a judge convicted him of taking
part in the killing, sentenced him to six years and released him
because he'd already served nine. "Free at last," he said. "I am
innocent, but I hold no malice toward anyone. I never felt
abandoned, thanks to the brotherhood of Olympians."
The last four months of his life were filled with bliss and
honor. He lived in Addis Ababa with his wife, Aberash
Wolde-Semhate, and their two children, ages 12 and 10. "The
children hug me all the time," Wolde said, laughing. "If I go to
the store, we all have to go, kids and wife and me, in a big
tangle of love."
On the phone his voice was electric. "Hey," he said to me in
April, "give me a few months to recuperate, and I'll race you any
distance you want, anywhere you want." Last month, after
accepting an invite to December's Honolulu Marathon, he told me
his liver condition was flaring up. Ten days later he was dead.
It's heart-wrenching that after enduring so much, he has gone so
quickly. I can only imagine that when he reached his finish, in
the embrace of his family, he was completely spent. I have no
doubt he went at peace, as befits a marathoner, knowing the
rightness of all things physical having an end.