The Author              The Bowerman Book


The Ordeal of Mamo Wolde

By Kenny Moore


Mamo Wolde, 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist in the Marathon

There's a story all Ethiopia treasures, in which I now learn I had a bit part. It's how their primal champion, Abebe Bikila, having won the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon barefoot (symbolically avenging Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930's), and having won the 1964 Tokyo Olympic marathon in a world record, then set out in the thin air of Mexico City in 1968 to win three Olympics in a row.

Your narrator, then 24, green and idolatrous, ran at Bikila's side in the early miles, through a claustrophobic gantlet of screaming, clutching Mejicanos locos. Once, Bikila, protecting his line before a turn, even gave me an elbow. I wanted to say there was no way I'd ever drive him into that crowd, but knew no Amharic. He had tape above one knee.

Any Ethiopian child can tell you too that Bikila was running hurt. After ten miles, he turned and beckoned to an ebony wraith of a teammate, Mamo Wolde, the 10,000-meter silver medalist and a fellow officer in Emperor Haile Selassie's palace guard. Wolde wove through the pack to Bikila's side. I wouldn't know for 34 years what they said, but it was:

"Lieutenant Wolde."

"Captain Bikila."

"I'm not finishing this race."

"Sorry, sir."

"But Lieutenant, you will win this race."

"Sir, yes sir."

"Don't let me down."

Wolde, thinking some runners were out of sight ahead, took off. None was, but until the tape touched his chest, he couldn't be sure. He won relieved, by a masterful three minutes.

I got blisters. I'd wrapped our trainer's new "breathable" adhesive tape around the balls of my feet, where it breathed in the lanolin I'd dabbed on my toes, came unstuck and rolled up until I was running on ridges of fire. I sat down in Chapultapec Park and took off my shoes. A crowd of campesinos surrounded me. I ripped the tape off one foot. The white canvas of their pants was instantly spattered with scarlet. The skin had come away with the tape. I did the other one, got my shoes back on, hobbled until I bled out and went numb, passed people the rest of the way and finished 14th. You had to ask.

Thus I was in the stadium tunnel, a weeping nurse spraying my feet with merthiolate, when Abebe Bikila emerged from an ambulance. He caught Wolde's eye, came to attention and saluted. Wolde, mission accomplished, crisply returned it. Wolde's victory meant his country hadn't produced a lone prodigy, but a succession. Wolde had made the marathon Ethiopia's own. Not that I remember caring. The next Olympics would be at sea level in Munich and Wolde would be pushing 40.

Wolde went home, had his portrait enshrined among the Olympic rings atop his national stadium and eventually would inspire Olympic champions Miruts ("Yifter the Shifter") Yifter, Derartu Tulu, Fatuma Roba, Gezahegne Abera and Haile Gebreselassie. The tale of Captain Bikila's order to the good soldier Wolde became legend in Ethiopia, but I didn't hear about it until last April, when Wolde recalled I was one of the runners he passed to reach Bikila's ear. What took so long? A little matter of the revered champion being made to rot in the Ethiopian Central Prison for nine years.

You are quick to ask why. Join the club. We'll get to that, to Wolde's great purgation, but let's linger with him as long as we can back before the fall, before he was overtaken by the monumental anguish of his nation.

Wolde and I ran almost stride for stride in the Munich marathon in 1972. With five miles to go we were dueling for second, a minute behind Frank Shorter. Wolde was as soft of foot and breath as an Abyssinian cat. The only way I knew he was even there was that distinguished widow's peak bobbing at my shoulder. Occasionally our shoes brushed. "Sorry," Wolde said each time.

On a rough path in the English Garden, a dehydration cramp shot up the back of my right thigh. Wolde watched me slow and grab my hamstring. He ran on. Then he turned and gave me a look I would never forget. His face filled with regret. It was as if he were saying this is all wrong, we were supposed to race in together and the stronger take the silver and the other the bronze. In fact, Belgium's Karel Lismont caught us both and finished second. Wolde took the bronze. I followed in fourth, 30 seconds behind.

Shorter, stunned at his triumph, embraced me. "I thought at least I had bronze," I croaked. "Wolde took my bronze."

Then Wolde and I shook hands, departed the terror-stricken Munich Olympics and returned to absurdly opposite worlds.

He went home to Addis Ababa, was promoted to captain himself and promised a nice house. He never got it, because in November of 1974, his Emperor, Haile Selassie, the former Ras Tafari, The Lion of Judah, age 83, was suffocated in his bedchamber and his 59 top ministers, admirals and generals lined up against a prison wall and machine-gunned. For the next seventeen years, a fanatic paranoid named Mengistu Haile Mariam changed Ethiopia from a feudal empire to a Marxist dictatorship known as The Derg. (Amharic for committee)

"The Derg, with Soviet backing, ran with a ruthlessness unsurpassed in Africa," wrote John Ryle in The New Yorker in 1995. Regional governors were known as "The Butcher of Tigray" or "The Butcher of Gondar." Revolutionary Guards killed tens of thousands suspected of disloyalty. Derg morgues turned a profit. To claim the body of a loved one, a family had to reimburse the government for the bullets used in the execution. More holes meant more revenue, so death squads observed a two-bullet minimum.

Wolde, being Imperial staff, seemed in mortal danger. His medals saved him. He was ordered to take a lowly position in a local kebele, a sort of neighborhood council that Derg officials also used to spy on, detain or torture counter-revolutionaries. Wolde was allowed to coach a few runners in return for being trotted out in uniform with his gold medal to impress dignitaries. He married Aymalem Beru and in 1976 they had a son, Samuel. When kebele staff meetings were ordered for Sunday mornings to keep party members from going to church, Wolde slipped out at dawn to attend Ethiopian Orthodox services. Aymalem died in 1987. Two years later, Wolde married young, adoring Aberash Semhate. They had two more children, Adiss Alem Mamo and Tabor Mamo.

None of this I knew. Distant, xenophobic Ethiopia was perpetual mystery, strife-torn and impoverished on the news, but there was effervescent little Yifter winning the 5,000 and 10,000 in the Moscow Olympics in 1980. I happened to do stories from Idi Amin's Uganda, from Somalia before the Marines went in, and from Algeria at the beginning of the radical Islamic terror that has now killed 120,000. People in all of them said Ethiopia was worse.

In 1984, rural Ethiopians were dying by tens of thousands from famine. Mengistu concealed it. When relief agencies finally discovered the starvation and aid poured in, Mengistu kept it from needy rebel areas and sold Ethiopia's grain to buy Soviet arms. He was responsible for roughly one million deaths.

Yet by 1989, things were stable enough for Wolde to take a trip out to Houston to be honored by the Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America, a soccer and cultural group. His host was Mengesha Beyene, who now lives in Washington D.C. "He was a great storyteller," says Beyene. "He said a fan had come up to him and said, "I love you!' And he'd said, "Lady, 'love' means 'sweat' in Amharic. Don't say 'love.' Don't put your 'love' on me.' He had us roaring."

I never heard of that visit, or of Wolde's wit and presence. I never knew him at all. Our only conversation had been our silent struggle in Munich.

In 1991, the Derg was finally overthrown by the forces of the Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). A week before Addis fell, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe. He has never been brought to justice.

But the new government caught 2,000 suspected authors of the Red Terror and created a special prosecutor's office to try them. In 1992, Wolde, too, was locked in the Ethiopian Central Prison. Word, however, was slow to escape.

Mamo Wolde prior to his incarceration in 1989
  

In 1995, I was jerked to my feet by an Amnesty International report that Wolde had been imprisoned for three years without even being charged with a crime. Amnesty had seen no evidence he was involved in any human rights abuses, and appealed to the prosecutor to either charge or release him and all others in his situation. Ethiopia did neither, refusing even to say what he was suspected of. When the International Olympic Committee demanded an explanation, it was told to back off and "await the verdict of the court."

I wanted to go to Ethiopia. I remember Shorter, a lawyer and a friend, wondering, uh, just how well we knew Wolde. I felt we knew enough. A gold medal doesn't guarantee perfection, but what is more basic to the Olympics than forsaking violence? Besides, marathoners don't burn others. We burn ourselves. Ideals were involved here. If this guy was a stone killer, it would kill ME. But the only way to know was to go find out.

An indispensable ally was 1972 Olympic 800-meter bronze medalist Mike Boit, who was then Kenya's sports commissioner. He urged me to come down to Nairobi, where he got me an Ethiopian tourist visa. He said the Kenyan government would love to hear what I learned about Wolde's plight.

And so, on a rainy day in August, 1995, the stalwart photographer Antonin Kratochvil and I landed in Addis Ababa for Sports Illustrated. Kratochvil is a combative soul, but shooting the genocide in Rwanda had sensitized him to the risk of violence. I said I trusted him not to take too many chances.

"Give me your little plastic camera," he said. "I can hide it in my scarf when we go to the prison."

Maybe trust is too strong a word.

First, we called the Special Prosecutor's office. Spokesman Abraham Tsegaye blandly said Wolde was going to be charged with, "taking part in a criminal act, a killing. "

I went queasy. I had come all that way on the strength of a backward glance. Suddenly it seemed childishly sentimental.

"Did Mamo Wolde have access to a lawyer?"

"Not now. Not until he is charged."

"If I was detained for three years without charge, I'd sure have a lawyer."

"Well, in your country, every time you shake hands with someone, you need a lawyer. In Ethiopia it's not such a way."

He said he had no authority to let me visit Wolde, and hung up. Kratochvil took a look at my waxen face and asked a question that turned everything around. "Does Mamo have a wife?"

Did he ever. Slender, doe-eyed and resolute, Aberash Wolde-Semhate, then 24, welcomed us into their mud and stick home off a rocky lane, behind a sheet metal wall. Son Tabor, then three, gave me a brave, cold, trembling little handshake. Adiss Alem, five, showed us Wolde's gold and silver medals from Mexico City.

The wood floors were smooth and clean. Frankincense was in the air. Aberash poured us glasses of talla, home-brewed beer, and solemnly apologized for Wolde not being able to welcome us himself. When I admitted I didn't really know him, we looked at a photo album and she sketched his history. He was born in 1932 in Ada, south of Addis Ababa, and was of the Oromo tribe. She had met him when she was 17, after his first wife died. "When I was in school, I ran a little, not seriously," she said. "But I read about and I loved them both, our heroes, Abebe Bikila and Mamo."

She dropped her eyes, a little embarrassed. The simple, rustic room and Aberash's tender loyalty hardly suggested a totalitarian absentee master. I took heart and asked her about the case. She said Wolde was being framed.

"Here is what happened," she said. "It was 1978, at the height of the terror. Mamo said one night he was ordered (by a top kebele official) to put on his uniform, with his pistol, and go to a nightclub. Mamo thought this was protocol, that he was to meet an important visitor. When he got there, he saw the official and some others had a boy with his hands tied. He was about 15. He might have been in some youth group, fighting against the Derg. [Reuters reported his name to be Samuel Alemo] The official took the boy out and shot him. Then they told Mamo to go to the body of the boy. At first he refused, but at that time to refuse an official was to be dead yourself, so finally he went. The boy was dead. The official told Mamo to shoot the body again, because there had to be two holes. The policy. Mamo said he went to ten feet away and shot and purposely missed. Lots of people saw him miss. In 1992, [when the court took testimony] many witnesses said Mamo didn't kill anybody. Only one accused him. The official who shot the boy wants to blame Mamo to save himself. The prosecutors say they have to keep him in detention until they bring charges, but they never do. He just waits."

The Wolde Aberash described had acted as I imagined I might if plunged into such grotesque choices. I began to revive.

Wolde had been briefly allowed out of prison twice, once when he was ill. Each time he stayed right in Addis Ababa with his family. This was infuriating, because it proved he was no risk to flee. "He wants to go to trial," said Aberash. "He wants to clear his name."

Meanwhile, he'd had bronchitis, hearing loss and liver problems. Prison meals were terrible, but families were allowed to bring in food. "We are lined up in a field, six feet apart, with two fences in between," said Aberash. "I think Sunday you should come along."

The End of The World Prison was ten blocks of post-apocalyptic depression. Rusty, corrugated metal walls surrounded cement barns. It seemed you could level the whole thing with a D-9 Cat in half an hour. In the shelter of a crumbling plaster watchtower, guards lounged in thin blue overcoats, their eyes locking instantly on us, the faranjoch, the foreigners. We joined perhaps 200 visitors in an open shed. Twenty at a time were being allowed in. Kratochvil did have my camera in his scarf and was blazing away at prison and people. I felt a wild hope. We just might waltz in here.

But when we moved with Aberash toward the gate, we were cut out as if we were hyenas among goats. Kratochvil's camera was seen, and we were encircled by guards yelling that foreigners were never allowed in a prison. It was a national security offense. "Everybody in every country," they repeated, "HAD to know taking pictures of prisons was FORBIDDEN."

One guard, a wasted man with crippled hand, kept shouting we were cunning foreigners and it was their duty to ignore everything we said and arrest us. Finding himself in the minority, he held out for summoning higher authority. So we were ordered through the gate and put on a bench in the courtyard. "Now WE are detained," said Kratochvil.

We waited, watching the visiting family members being searched. The female guards going over female visitors ran a hand up under skirts and deep into crotches. A pair of eagles wheeled overhead. Never have they seemed so free. We could see the wall against which Haile Selassie's government ministers were executed. A familiar question arose. What the hell was I doing here? The answer came more easily than on the road. I was trying to let Wolde know he wasn't forgotten. Besides, how brutal could a night in an Ethiopian prison be if Mamo had done a thousand of them?

As if in answer, a guard slammed a magazine into his AK-47 and watched our reaction. The mechanism sounded glossily ancient. Surely it had a hair trigger. A certain calm was required. I sought it by concentrating on Wolde, and I was back running with him in Munich. This time, when my cramp hit and he turned, I imagined him saying, "Hold on. Hold on."

A major Neguesse roared in in a pickup. All deferred to him. The whites of his eyes were the color of strawberry freezer jam, presumably from chewing khat. He heard our story and called his boss.

We waited four more hours, the man with the crippled hand whining ever more hysterically for our heads. They kept asking for our passports, to prove who we were. We'd left them at our hotel. Finally, we were given an escort there, a huge armored vehicle with six guards. You should have seen the face of the Hilton doorman when we all pulled in. While I diverted the officers, Kratochvil flushed his film of the prison. The major confiscated our passports, and said, ominously, we would talk the next day.

The next day, we didn't wait. We went to the top. We went to the dreaded Ministry of Internal Affairs and threw ourselves on the mercy of its chief, a Ms. Mahete, a sour, angular, Tigrayan woman in a red dress. At the moment our interpreter said I had run against Wolde in the Olympics, her expression softened. She held up a hand, made a call and dictated a letter. In a stroke of impossible luck, we had permission to visit Wolde.

At the prison we held up the letter like a cross before a vampire. The gate rolled open. The guards who had terrified us before shrank back against the walls, terrified. Major Neguesse bowed us in and begged to be forgiven. He was.

"Well, then," he said. "Let us see your friend."

We were led down a rocky path toward a two-story building. Guards were coming down a staircase. Among them was a slender man in a green and white sweater, with a distinguished widow's peak.

I threw aside my guards. He fought through his. We embraced on the steps. He was bony but warm, strong and excited.

"It all comes back," he said. "You had a goatee. Oh, THANK you from my family for this! Remember me to the Olympic brothers."

"You ARE remembered!" I said, and poured out the good wishes of the IOC and friends, including a standing invitation to run or be grand marshal of the Honolulu Marathon.

Wolde, thunderstruck, said, "These are words from God."

"Well, Jim Barahal and Jon Cross. Now what do you NEED?"

"All I need is to get out, re-make my mud house in stone and live with my children in safety."

We had maybe eight minutes together. Then he grabbed my forearms. "It restores my soul," he said. "It is something I can feel in my body, that people outside the country remember." They led him back upstairs.

Watching him go, I thought of what a slender thread had brought me there. But this time it was my turn to look back and cry out that this was wrong, this isn't the way things should be happening.

I poured all that into my SI article. As a result, the Christmas season of 1995 cemented my faith in human nature. Every mail brought copies of letters people had sent to the prosecutor, reminding him that justice delayed is justice denied. One was from an Indiana prison administrator, Thomas D. Hanlon, who said all 7,000 of HIS prisoners had been charged, tried, convicted and sentenced. Until Ethiopia did the same for Wolde, "You are committing an injustice toward the individual and a disservice to those of us charged with operating prisons in a humane manner."

Schools and churches adopted Wolde in letter-writing campaigns. Athletes United for Peace, headed by Olympic long jumper Dr. Phil Shinnick and ex-49ers quarterback Guy Benjamin, flooded the U.N. Human Rights Commission with appeals, as did the National Council of Churches.

Mike Boit had made a stab at high level diplomacy, having me brief an advisor to Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi on Wolde's situation, in the hope Moi might nudge Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi to free him because of his age and ill health. It didn't happen, maybe because Moi was then defiantly harboring some Hutu ringleaders of the genocide in Rwanda. Wolde sat.

Many Olympic brothers weren't content to write. The most unexpectedly galvanized was Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic decathlon champion. Toomey, a great salesman and raconteur, has never been accused of taking life too seriously. But something clicked. As president of the Association of U.S. Olympians, Toomey recruited two-time 800-meter champion Mal Whitfield (who had coached Wolde in Ethiopia) and former Assistant Commerce Secretary Carlos Campbell to urge our State Department to press for Wolde's release on bail.

Toomey then postponed his honeymoon, went to Switzerland and hit up IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch for help. Samaranch, touched, made Toomey the IOC point man on the Wolde case, gave him a check to take to Aberash, and wrote a letter appealing for Wolde's freedom and inviting him to be a guest of the IOC at the Atlanta Olympics.

Toomey ran with it, stopping in Nairobi to pick up 1968 Olympic 1500-meter champion Kip Keino, inarguably Africa's greatest sporting ambassador. In May of 1996, they descended upon Addis Ababa. Toomey called to report.

"My life has changed!" he yelled. "I'm finally doing something important! On the way to the special prosecutor's office, I'm in a new, thousand-dollar Brooks Brothers suit and a passing car hits a puddle and I'm SOAKED through the window! Kip howled and took over. God, he's the man there. The minister of justice was almost in tears at the sight of Kip Keino in his office. And Kip set it up beautifully. He said, "In three months, three billion people are going to watch the Atlanta Olympics. It's the 100th anniversary of the modern marathon, and they're going to see the great contributions Ethiopian runners have made. And then they're GOING TO SEE THE MISERY OF MAMO WOLDE.' That had an effect. They said they'd try to let him out for a day or two. I said, "The Olympics are 16 days.'

"We got 35 minutes with Mamo in prison. What a nice, humble person! Kip was re-living races with Mamo in Europe and Mexico. Everyone there was moved. We're getting him medicine, food, clothes, a good lawyer."

Toomey was amazed at himself. "I just jumped in! I kept going! I felt in the airport the way we did in Russia in the "60's, that they might not let us out! They say they'll at least CHARGE him soon. Our embassy human rights person took note of that."

Unfortunately, the minister of justice Keino had so thrilled wouldn't make the call. That power lay with the Kenneth Starr of Ethiopia, the independent prosecutor, Girma Wakjira. In theory, that was fine. The current government was the best in Ethiopian history. Trying the Derg barbarians was an attempt at an African Nuremberg, a demonstration that the nation was now one of laws not murderers. Toomey was not insensitive to that.

"We want to PROTECT their process," he said. "We have to show Wakjira that Mamo is a special case, both humanitarian and heroic. If he goes to Atlanta, we'll guarantee he'll come back to face his accusers. But the world wants to see him there, carrying the flame, the connecting flame."

Over the next few months, the IOC reaffirmed its invitation and the reigning Olympic women's 10,000 meter champion, Derartu Tulu, and the rest of the Ethiopian team bravely asked for his release. Wolde began to allow himself to really hope. The Olympic offer seemed to resurrect ekecheiria, the ancient Greek Olympic truce, under which warriors lay down their arms on battlefields and traveled to the sacred contests of Olympia for 1200 years.

That cut no ice with Wakjira. "We know Mamo is a hero of the land," he said. "But how would authorities say, "O.K. Mamo, we shall prosecute the rest of the people but because you are a hero you can go to Atlanta?"' Wakjira said he would prove Wolde was "head of the revolutionary guard in Addis Ababa's Area 16," and involved with the execution of 14 young people in late 1978 or early 1979.

Wolde, in an interview with Reuters, said, "I was not a member of the revolutionary guard. I was head of the development committee of that area, maintaining houses."

Wolde neared despair. "My lowest point," he would say, "was when the prosecutor threw all the Olympic appeals in the dump." He told his interviewer, "I'm a penniless hero. I have not been rewarded for everything I've done for Ethiopia and the youth." He was 64, in a country where male life expectancy is 48. "My days are numbered. I hope the world will educate my children."

The Atlanta Games took place without him. And it was all as Keino had predicted. Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie won the 10,000 and Fatuma Roba the women's marathon. And a powerful NBC report showed Wolde and me racing in Munich and my trek to his home. The last images were of Aberash and the children waiting outside that dismal, decaying prison.

Tokyo Olympic 10,000-meter champion Billy Mills suggested we sign an Olympic flag for Wolde. So he, Toomey, Shorter, Whitfield, Ralph Boston, Willie Davenport, Rafer Johnson, John Naber, Andrea Mead Lawrence, Wyomia Tyus and I, among many others, covered the white cloth with brotherhood. When Aberash and the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, took it to the prison, the wardens were so impressed they set up a tea party in the yard for the presentation. "It was ecstasy, it was rejoicing," Wolde would recall. "There were 500 other detainees there, many who'd been government dignitaries and university presidents. When Mr. Shinn held up that flag, there was a cheer from them all."

When asked whether he'd been jailed with any real monsters, Wolde said, "I can speak only for me. But of the rest of them, I cannot." To endure their eternal wait, the prisoners seem to set aside their putative sins and develop a live-and-let-live civility. That year, 1700 suspects were still detained. Only 46, all top Derg officials, had been charged. Wolde, of course, had not.

About this time, Wolde and Aberash entered into a pact. When she was visiting the prison one Sunday, he took her hand through the fence and whispered that the only reason he was alive to receive such things as flags and invitations to marathons was her tireless, capable struggle to visit him with food and support and the sight of his kids growing up safe and strong and loving. "So," he said, "I am going to make a vow. When I finally get out of here--and I am going to get out of here--and when I receive another invitation to go out of the country and be celebrated, I'm not going to go, not unless I can take you too, because you are the marathoner here. You are enduring as much as I."

Aberash was overwhelmed. She wet her fingers with her tears and touched Wolde's hand with them in acceptance, because greater love no Ethiopian can show than by escorting his wife out into the wider world, by proudly introducing her to other peoples, other cultures. She had often said that being able to visit the places Mamo had run and meet the people he'd run with, "is my greatest possible dream." Now it was their sacred promise.

Ethiopia having proven immune to world opinion, Olympians began to explore other options. My files, of things done and not done, are two feet high.

Peter Montgomery of Australia, president of the 70,000-strong World Olympians Association, wrote to the World Bank, suggesting it use its debt-cancellation leverage to press for action on Wolde's behalf.

1960 water polo Olympian Chuck Bittick, who'd been in intelligence in the service, sent around a letter seeking support for a plan whereby "the most ethical, reliable and active asset operating effectively in the region" would be funded to meet with the President of Ethiopia, buy Wolde's release and spirit him out of the country. "The President of Gabon [Omar Bongo] offered visas and his personal plane to move Mamo and his family when his release is secured," wrote Bittick, on behalf of the Southern California Olympians. The letter didn't mention expense, but a figure of $200,000 was later bruited about.

The secret ops route wasn't taken. Surely it cost too much. Wolde was never asked whether he wanted to live the rest of his life as an expatriate. He did take comfort in knowing he was welcome to live and coach at Keino's orphanage in Eldoret, Kenya.

In February, 1997, I got a call from Sally Field. She'd been affected by the NBC piece during Atlanta, and wondered whether the story was one her production company, Fogwood Films, could develop. We had a nice lunch. She turned out to be a no-nonsense, 25-mile-per-week runner contemplating the marathon. We agreed that a film, as much as it might help Wolde, had to have a dramatic structure. Mamo's ordeal was without an ending, happy or tragic. Yet.

A month later, after five years of imprisonment, Wolde was finally indicted. He was one of 72 detainees arraigned on charges of "participating in mass killings and torture." Prosecutor Wakjira said, "The trials should take less than three years."

Wolde's attorney, Atanafu Bogale, hired by the IOC, objected that the charges didn't even include the place and date of the offense, or what weapons were used, as the law required. It took a year for the prosecutor to respond. In 1998, the court let the vague charges stand.

As the years went by, I couldn't stop remembering how all Ethiopian bureaucracy grinds up time. Eight different, power-tripping bank clerks have to sign off before you can cash a check. Wolde seemed to have so little time. If he did clear his name, would he have any life left to live?

The baton, in our Olympian relay, was seized by an old friend and Oregon track teammate, the indefatigable Jere Van Dyk. A sub-four-minute miler and Sorbonne graduate, Van Dyk had been the first journalist to go into Afghanistan with the mujahideen warlords fighting the Russians in the early 80's. In November, 1998, he went to Addis Ababa to cover Wolde's trial for the New York Times.

Typically, Van Dyk spent a month in a second class hotel and explored all the factors of history, grudge, culture and tribe that bore upon Wolde's fate. He patiently struck up a relationship with the special prosecutor, and convinced prison authorities to let him not only interview Wolde but photograph him. The story and picture ran in March of 1999, three and a half years after I'd seen Wolde. He looked like he'd aged ten.

"He was small and thin," wrote Van Dyk, "his forehead deeply lined and his eyes watery. He has bronchitis and throughout a 90-minute interview exhibited a deep cough." Nonetheless, Wolde walked every day around the courtyard.

When the government's first witnesses testified, it was front page news in Addis Ababa. "Complete with a picture of Wolde receiving an award many years ago from Emperor Haile Selassie," Van Dyk wrote to me, "a figure despised by many, most importantly Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his fellow Tigrayans who are running the government."

But Bogale, Wolde's attorney, cross examined to devastating effect. No accuser had actually seen Wolde commit any of the alleged acts. "It was hearsay, hearsay, hearsay," said Wolde. "The government case was futile. No one came to testify who had witnessed me do anything wrong."

Before a western judge, that would mean case dismissed. But the prosecutor begged the Ethiopian court for more time to dig up the eyewitnesses he'd promised. The delay was granted. In early 2000, the same thing happened. The prosecution received yet another delay. Wolde, now 68, kept rotting. This wasn't double jeopardy. It was infinite jeopardy.

In my 1995 story, I had written that Wolde, in being Oromo, was not of a rebellious tribe. But I learned the Oromo Liberation Front had withdrawn from Meles's government coalition and taken to the hills in opposition in 1992, the year Wolde was arrested.

In 1997, Ambo Bati, an Oromo runner at Augustana College in Illinois, was quoted thus in Amnesty Action: "I know that Oromo people have been arrested, tortured and killed by the government. There are secret detention centers all over the country." Bati's brother, Yosef, had spent weeks in one before being kidnapped, also in 1992.

So Prime Minister Meles had no political or tribal reason to lift a finger for Wolde, unless forced. Van Dyk, who also had been an aide to Sen. Henry Jackson, canvassed Washington D.C. for such a force. He found none. "Ethiopia is just not that important to the U.S.," he wrote me in May of 2000, "especially now that Eritrea, not Ethiopia, borders the Red Sea."

Reading that, hope drained away. Ethiopia, I knew then, was too unreachable, too destitute, too tribal, too proud, too callous to ever let Mamo Wolde walk free. I said as much to a friend, Kip Leonard, an Oregon circuit court judge. "Let them save face," he said. "Go for a lesser plea. Go for time served." That became my mantra from then on. Time served. But I couldn't believe Ethiopia would ever accept it. Thank goodness Wolde wasn't as faint-hearted as I.

The secret of endurance isn't so much a lesson as an imperative. You obey the dictates of the marathon. You cut your losses and keep on. You go numb, bleed out and keep on. You fall, get up and keep on. You go from rock to rock, from tree to tree, and keep on. You take strength in knowing others care about your effort and keep on.

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

Wolde kept on. The great, uncrackable marathoner physically outlasted Ethiopia. This January a judge convicted him of a lesser charge, sentenced him to six years and released him because he'd already served nine. Time served. Time and a half. That evening he was home with Aberash and his children. "Thank God, I am free at last," he said. "I hold no malice toward anyone."

The news reached me at home in Hawaii on Martin Luther King Day. "Free at last!" I echoed, and celebrated with a dizzy, whooping run. But even as I imagined Mamo finally drinking in Aberash's perfect coffee, a fear knifed me. He must be really sick. Maybe they just didn't want him dying in their cell.

Not long afterward, a lyrically articulate man called and introduced himself as Mr. Mengesha Beyene of the Ethiopian Sports Federation. He had been moved by the old piece in SI, and just wanted to make sure I knew Wolde was free. I said I knew, but desperately wanted to talk with him. Could Beyene get his number? He not only could, he translated during a three-way call.

Wolde's first words were, "I feel like we are embracing!"

I said he was a true marathoner.

"Thanks, thanks. Except for the separation from family and isolation of prison, I haven't felt ABANDONED. Thanks to the Olympic community."

I asked the big one. "How's your health?"

"Hey, " he said, "give me a couple of months to recuperate and I'll race you anywhere you want, any distance you want!"

His voice was electric, his Amharic a flood. He seemed about 30. "He speaks like a diplomat," Beyene said later. "Great command of his language."

Wolde said he wanted to stay in Addis "and establish an institute to perpetuate the legacy of Abebe Bikila." Generations of champions had welcomed him home. Haile Gebrselassie had raised money to help pay off his "prison debts."

Wolde is served an Ethiopian coffee ceremony by his 9-year-old daughter Tabor Mamo. Note Olympic medals and race trophies and in background.
 

"It's re-incarnation for me to join my family," Wolde said. "People visit every day and say, "We recognize you as a great Ethiopian hero.'"

Things were hardly idyllic. "Prices are staggering, and my son is losing his eyesight," he said. "But for now, it's bliss. The children hug me all the time. If I go around the corner to the store, we all have to go together, kids and Aberash and me, all tangled in a group. In the capable hands of my wife, we have made it safely through."

Aberash said, "We miss you! Your coffee is on! But with the grace of God, we can come visit you and your culture. It's a dream to be anticipated."

Wolde ended with, "You've shared my perseverance in life. I cherish that. Thanks, thanks again for remembering me."

When he hung up, I was weightless. Beyene filled the silence with ridiculously apt lines from Tennyson's Ulysses, which he learned in Emperor Haile Selassie's secondary school.

"And though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

I couldn't get Wolde's unexpected fire out of my mind. So I called Dr. Jon Cross of the Honolulu Marathon Association, and asked whether the old invitation to Mamo still stood.

Did it ever.

He called back and said, "Get training, buddy! We're not only inviting Mamo and Aberash, but you, Shorter and Lismont, the top four from Munich 30 years ago, to run here in December."

We all accepted, none of us sure we could actually make the distance. I had a sore tendon. Frank had just had shoulder surgery. He said, "This isn't fair. Mamo has been safe in prison. We free citizens have crippled ourselves."

I threw myself into drafting this story, even to the point of imagining how it might end in December, with the four of us old Olympians, perhaps in our Munich uniforms, striding barefoot down my Kailua Beach, the turquoise sea breaking upon the level white sand. On the dunes, watching, would be Aberash Wolde and Beyene and our choked-up families.

Mr. Beyene would declaim more Tennyson into the wind:

..Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles.
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew...

And every palm tree, every face, every drop splashed up by our feet would glow with perfect clarity as we ran, in the Happy Isles, with the great Achilles, whom we knew.

So it was that I refused to absorb it, in May, when Beyene called and forced himself to tell me Wolde had died. Jon Cross was equally shocked. "We just talked to him," he said. "When he accepted our invitation he said his liver condition was flaring up. I said to fax me his prescription and I'd shoot him what he needed. But he never did." Ten days later he was dead.

Thousands wept as an honor guard of Ethiopian Olympic champions escorted his casket three miles from his home through Addis Ababa to St, Joseph's Cemetery. He now lies beside his inspiration and friend, Abebe Bikila, the man who ordered him to win the Olympic gold medal in Mexico.

But what had claimed Wolde, who was so alive so recently? Had his jailers discovered he was dying?

I didn't know until Aberash's twelfth day of mourning, the day in Ethiopian custom when friends call and bring pot luck, to assure the bereaved that they're not forgotten, that we're all still in this together. Beyene suggested it was a good time to phone. It was. Aberash Wolde thanked us, and took us back to May 15, the day of Cross's call.

"My husband and I had a pact," she began, and described how it had sustained them that Mamo had vowed in prison not to accept an invitation out of the country if he couldn"t take her. "And so, when Dr. Cross called and invited Mamo to Honolulu in December, Mamo didn't accept. He asked if I might come. And Dr. Cross said I MUST come. They couldn't invite a man to visit paradise and not bring along his love. So Mamo jubilantly accepted. He was so happy. This was the culmination of our dream. This was what we had prayed for for seven years.

"Yes," said Aberash, "Mamo's liver hurt but that was completely wiped away by the joy that at last we would keep his promise. And we would do it in Hawaii. It was unimaginable."

Aberash's tears had flowed and flowed, she finally said, because Mamo was so happy and because she knew he was dying, and they would never actually hold hands on my beach.

The liver pains had intensified a month before. Mamo had looked a little jaundiced, but he blew it off as he blew off all discomforts. "My husband lived and died a STRONG man," she said. But she got him to a clinic for a checkup and the doctor told her it was cancer and Mamo had only weeks left. The clinic did what it could to make him comfortable, then sent him home to be with friends and family.

Wolde was peaceful at the end, but I doubt he was as accepting as the Buddha. I'll bet he was perfectly willing to wake up and find himself on the mend.

So now it will be Aberash coming in Mamo's place to Honolulu in December. "From here on out," she said with a fitting formality. "I duly represent the legend."

And how do I leave this account? With a vow of my own, of course, a promise to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield, and to do it all in the spirit of the great old uncrackable marathoner, whom I never knew.



Kenny Moore, Aberash Wolde, Karel Lismont, and Frank Shorter
reunited on Kailua Beach, Windward Oahu, Hawaii, Decmber 2002.

Aberash arrived in Honolulu the Friday before the race, escorted, deferentially, by two Olympic marathon champions, Fatuma Roba (Atlanta in 1996) and Gezahegne Abera (Sydney in 2000). Aberash wore a navy suit, and seemed unaffected by 28 hours aloft. We draped her with leis of tuberose and ilima, the latter a flower reserved for royalty in ancient Hawaii. She in turn presented Jon Cross (Honolulu Marathon race director) and me with airily soft, white, embroidered Dashikis, Ethiopian dress for special occasions. "Christmas," she whispered, "or the coffee ceremony."

We sat in a hospitality suite, blinking, not knowing what to say now that the moment had arrived. Aberash brought out photos showing how fragile Mamo had been--paper and sticks, glue and grit--during the four months of honor and bliss before he died.

Asking how we could be good hosts, we began to unfold a map of Oahu. Had she and Mamo had something they especially wanted to do? Aberash quietly began to cry, while we writhed at our lameness, our ignorant presumption. Recovering, she politely made it clear that her mission had little to do with mooning over waterfalls.

"Life in Ethiopia," she began, "is very difficult." Neither she nor Mamo has any remaining family, so she is the sole support for Adiss Alem, 12, and Tabor, 10. Mamo's oldest son, Simon, 26, can't work because of vision problems. Their only income is a small stipend from the IOC. The public schools are dead ends and she can't afford to put the children in private ones. Famine is once again looming in parts of the country. Abera and Roba confirmed all this, and said the assistance other Ethiopian athletes can offer is more emotional than financial. The government, of course, has always treated her as persona non grata.

I pledged to seek and find some help.

We adjourned to let Aberash rest. I sought out the other two men of Munich. Karel Lismont of Belgium is still only 53. He'd finished second in 1972 at 22, and run in four Olympics in all, taking the bronze in Montreal in 1976, three seconds ahead of Don Kardong of the U.S. As Shorter put it, "He's kept more Americans from medals than any other runner."

Lismont turned out to be a man of strict pronouncements. He said running 30 minutes three times a week was all men of our age should do, and so didn't enter the marathon. He and his wife did take a quick trip to the island of Molokai to visit the church of Father Damien, the heroic Belgian priest who'd died
Caring for the leper colony at Kalaupapa. Lismont then ran the mule trail up the 2,000-foot cliff.

Shorter was delighted to find Lismont is the Belgian equivalent of an IRS agent. "He was always the pale little demon you did NOT want to see gaining on you," cackled Frank. "Now he's the pale little demon you do NOT want going over your taxes."

Let me explain Shorter's glee. It rises out of brotherhood. There is no greater, more dogged force for justice in American sport than Frank Shorter, he being the director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

I had developed a sore hip in training ("See. See!" said Lismont), so didn't run the marathon either. But Shorter did, and beautifully, covering each mile in exactly seven and a half minutes to finish in 3:23. It was his first marathon in seven years. Afterward, the old Olympians were of one equal temper. We wanted to help Aberash.

Things came together over a lunch table in my town of Kailua the day before Aberash had to leave. Jon Cross reported that the Honolulu Marathon Association was contributing a grant. Shorter and I had taken up collections at runners' gatherings. All told, we presented Aberash with enough for a year of schooling and support for the kids. Moreover, Mike Long of the Rock and Roll Marathon had pledged to do a fund raiser in the Ethiopian community of San Diego. And Mr. Mengesha Beyene--whose initiative and eloquence had led to this reunion--called from Washington D.C. to say the Ethiopian Sports Federation of North America would surely do the same at its annual soccer tournament and sports festival in Houston in June.

Beyene translated Aberash's response, not that he needed to, given the Relief on her face. "Thank you from my children," she said gravely. "Thank you from my husband, your friend."

Serious matters concluded, the sentimental Jon Cross, who'd never been able to shake the image of us all striding together on my beach, proposed that we actually do it.

Kailua's sands were windswept and gray as Frank arranged us in the order we'd finished 30 years before. He was on the high side, then Karel, then Aberash--a yard ahead, as she was representing our Achilles here--then me, with my toes in the Pacific foam. We walked along tentatively for a while, feeling odd, with Aberash looking back occasionally to see if she was doing what was wished. At last we just clumped together and walked on in each other's arms.

Cross, backpedaling with his camera, shouted and pointed. A rainbow was arching down, pouring upon us all the colors of the Olympic rings. Aberash turned and saw it. Her flinch was as electric as Wolde's embrace had been in prison. I looked down. She too has a faint widow's peak.

Her jolt passed through us all, and the circle of 30 years was at last closed. It was so perfect that we hesitated to speak of it. As we drew apart, all the talk was of the future, of safe travel, of hopes for the children, even as we stared up at Mamo's rainbow, strengthening in the sky, signifying that it was all right to go on, that the bond is as strong as ever.

THE END


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