The Struggle to Keep Heads Above Water

The Struggle to Keep Heads Above Water

COVID-19 has steadily expanded its empire around the world, claiming all national territories as its victims. Although some of these nations suspended their sporting activities at different times, they have almost entirely succumbed to the anti-social traits of the virus. It has been weeks since sports competitions were suspended in Ethiopia. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw looks into the struggle to stay afloat in the country’s athletics and football federations.

COVID-19 has steadily expanded its empire around the world, claiming all national territories as its victims. Although some of these nations suspended their sporting activities at different times, they have almost entirely succumbed to the anti-social traits of the virus. It has been weeks since sports competitions were suspended in Ethiopia. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw looks into the struggle to stay afloat in the country’s athletics and football federations.

A few weeks back, Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) and Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) were busier than usual as they ran tournaments on top of the domestic competitions. EFF was working with Sport Commission and other organized committees to host the 70th FIFA Congress which was scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa in May 2020. At the same time, the country’s governing body for athletics was working hard to stay in line with its hectic Olympic preparation schedule for Tokyo 2020. Both events have been called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That, however, was not the end. Following the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country, the Ethiopian government suspended all domestic sporting events. Subsequently, EFF sent almost 90Pct of its staff home.

“A lot changed in the country’s football. It almost altered the whole administrative plan of our calendar year,” says Bahiru Tilahun, acting secretary general of EFF. “All league competitions are halted for indefinite time after only half a season. We do not know when we are going to go back to the regular schedule. As our winter is due in six weeks, it would be difficult to finish the league unless we find a different solution.”

The federation believes voiding the leagues without identifying the champions, the promoted and relegated teams should not be the first option. The officials rather seem concerned about the clubs, which they think are not responding well to the challenge. “Teams in the two lower leagues (National League and First League) were not active in the winter players’ transfer window. Some act like there is no more competition. There might be uncertainties. But we expect them (clubs) to cope with it,” says Bahiru.

Most of the clubs are already struggling to pay salaries as the stadium match day revenue dried. To make matters worse, some club sponsors are suspending their agreements fearing the potential economic impact of COVID-19 on their businesses.

The federation won’t be spared from the financial debacle. Following CAF’s suspension of all competitions including AFCON 2021 qualifiers, the match between the Ethiopian national team and its Niger counterpart was postponed. This came with its own cost. Walia Beer, the National team’s major sponsor and a product of Heineken Breweries, suspended the four years sponsorship deal of ETB56 million which extends to 2022. Considering the details in the agreement, like the minimum number of games the national team plays a year, the federation admits the sponsor’s decision “is understandable”.

Despite the dire financial conditions the add-on effects of these developments must have subjected the Federation into, it contributed ETB500,000 to the national effort to fight the pandemic and encouraged clubs and players to take their part in the fight against covid-19. Joining the public sensitization campaign on coronavirus using national team coaches and captains, and alerting the country’s footballers to stay fit with indoor exercises are among the tasks EFF wants to engage in. “The executive committee of the federation will have a meeting with club officials, may be by teleconferencing, to decide on the fate of the leagues.”

Although the headaches of the athletics federation are not similar to those of the football administering body, the biggest international competitions in the field such as the Olympics, world championships and almost all road races have been canceled or postponed. “This is huge,” says Kidist Tadesse, a senior athletics medical expert and anti-doping focal person in EAF. “It affects the athletes and the country as a nation of athletics. Athletes miss out on a lot of things for not competing at these stages. Their performance and income will be affected. Competitions would keep them fit and in form. We should not forget their potential income from prizes and bonuses in the competitions as well. And as a nation, it steals our moment of pride and victory at the international stage.”

The disappointment that comes with skipping big competitions might not be the end of the damage. In stark contrast to the widely held belief, there are reports indicating that athletes may not be more resistant to COVID-19 than ordinary people. According to global sport science experts, athletes may develop weak immunity when they are on strong trainings and competitions.

Kidist also pointed to their vulnerability to respiratory diseases. “Our athletes are known for their great endurance, which pushes their respiratory system to its limits. This is one reason why they should understand how the new corona virus could hit them hard,” she underscored.

The concern seems to be shared by some of the top athletes in the country. Prior to the EAF’s decision to postpone some of the local races, the 5000m Ethiopian champion, Tilahun Haile urged the federation suspend national competitions through his Facebook page. “Trainings and races exhaust us dearly. Our body cannot fight such a disease. Obviously, if we do not train hard, having competitions gives no sense,” he said.

To show unwavering support to the athletes and low paid coaching staff, EAF distributed a little over ETB 4 million in cash along with some training kits. ‘All 211 national team athletes and 56 coaches will be paid ETB 15,000 each to encourage them stay fit and motivated’ reads the press release from the federation.

Now the team of professionals, medial doctors, athletics coaches, psychologists, nutritionists and anti-doping experts are coming together to sensitize thousands of athletes nationwide. “Since gathering athletes is impossible this time around, we are targeting Tv channels, radio programs and social media to push forth with the outreach. We are also joined by legendary athletes who won Olympic medals. Considering the strong team we have, I believe we can challenge athletes, coaches, managers and even the whole public to join the fight against the pandemic,” remarked Kidist. EBR


9th Year • Apr.16 – May.15 2020 • No. 85

Abiy Wendifraw


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