The Ordeal of
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
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:
"I'm not finishing this race."
"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
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
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
Then Wolde and I shook hands, departed the
terror-stricken Munich Olympics and returned to absurdly
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Well, then," he said. "Let us see your
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.
threw aside my guards. He fought through his. We embraced on
the steps. He was bony but warm, strong and
"It all comes back," he said. "You had a goatee. Oh,
THANK you from my family for this! Remember me to the Olympic
"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
Wolde, thunderstruck, said, "These are words from
"Well, Jim Barahal and Jon Cross. Now what do you
"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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wolde's first words were, "I feel like we are
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."
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
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
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
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
We are not now that strength which in
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we
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."
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
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
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."
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
..Some work of noble note, may yet be
unbecoming men that strove with gods;
be we shall touch the Happy Isles.
the great Achilles, whom we
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
But what had claimed Wolde, who was so alive so
recently? Had his jailers discovered he was
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
"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
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
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.
Moore, Aberash Wolde, Karel Lismont, and Frank Shorter
reunited on Kailua Beach, Windward Oahu, Hawaii, Decmber
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.