Boxing was introduced to Ethiopia 55 years ago. However, the game is still struggling for popularity. Had the sport got the attention it deserves, some stakeholders argue, it could have become a national success. However, Ethiopia was not even able to send a boxer to the London and Rio Olympic games due to financial constraints. The absence of local competitions is a key problem to the sport’s development. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with stakeholders to learn about the current status of the game.
When Ethiopian Olympic team was leaving the Sydney Olympic village in 2000, main roads in Addis Ababa were preparing for a warm welcome. Not only the great Haile Gebresilassie, who extraordinarily snatched the 10,000 meter gold medal in micro seconds from Kenyan Paul Tergat, all the remaining medal winners and the national team members were enthusiastic to return home where they later collected a lot of praises and prizes. Not every athlete in the team was sharing this same feeling though. When the plane arrived, two of the three boxers, including the 23 years old Addisu Tebebu, were missing.
“I had to decide. I knew boxing in Ethiopia could not offer me the life I want to live. That decision should not make one question the love I have for my country and the sport. It was not easy. But I had to make my mind up,” says Addis who later became Australian light welterweight champion and still lives there.
Addisu is not the first, or the only one going through similar career path. For decades, Ethiopia failed to keep its relatively talented boxers. Usually, it is rare to find very good boxers. But when new talents emerge, it is a matter of time before they retire, or leave the country for economic reasons.
Mekbeb Kemal, widely known as MAK, 26, is a semi professional boxer, who recently won at the fund-raising tournament organized by the Ethiopian Boxing Federation (EBF). The tournament was held at Intercontinental Hotel in Addis Ababa. “I almost gave up in the sport and went to Kenya in 2010. My plan was to go to South Africa eventually. But I could not stay in Kenya for more than five months,” says Mekbeb who returned home later to retain his national title. “Afterwards I managed to represent my country in different stages, in Africa and Europe. I am still here” he says.
These days, football is practiced by many Ethiopians to make a living. Now many who are playing in the Ethiopian premier league became ‘accidental’ millionaires earning a salary well above some of the bank presidents in the country. These footballers never tempt to leave the country, unless they find another foreign professional club to play for. Boxing, however, has a long way to go to reach to this level. In the past, young boxers work hard to train themselves and when they win a place in the national team they start to contemplate about fleeing the country.
Those who have been in the sport in the 1970s and 1980s say the practice has always been like that. In the previous regime, military establishments had very good boxers who were motivated to win. That sport gave them the opportunities to spare themselves from battlefields. Even at that time, most athletes who travel abroad for competitions never make it back.
Mekbeb believes that now this trend is fading. “In the recent national team competitions where I was a captain, no one went missing.” However, as the money they make is not enough for a living, they engage in other businesses to get additional income.
Box lovers feel dejected when they see their favorite game fades out. Those in the sport always mention that boxing is only next to athletics that Ethiopians were relatively successful in Olympic Games. Ethiopia participated in four tournaments of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico and kept on participating in forthcoming Olympics. In contrast to this tradition, Ethiopia did not send any boxer to London and Rio Olympic games in 2012 and 2016 perspectively. In fact, there are very few local competitions as well. These contributed to the sport’s gradual fading.
According to Paulos Mada, president of EBF, failure to organize as many competitions as possible is like breaking the bridge. “That is the only way to attract and motivate new talents. That is the best thing one can do to keep elite boxers in good shape,” he says. “Our boxers are very good technically. But they lack the stamina to fight consecutively.” He explains. He added that “When one sees them in their first games, he get amazed in their performance. The next day, they look weak; and then on the third day, they tremble. This is because of the lack of training.”
Addisu agrees with Paulos. “It does not work if a boxer trains just for three days a week. This might work for amateurs who exercise for their wellbeing. A boxer should train five, six or seven days a week.” he affirms.
Knowing the sport closely for three decades as a boxer, coach and administrator, Paulos argues only investment and business can address most of the bottlenecks in Ethiopian boxing. “EBF should strengthen its financial position and become independent. This benefits boxers a lot.” Paulos added that “We are working on this. The event we organized at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addis Ababa was a good illustration of what EBF is trying to do. We managed to raise funds and awarded to each winner in the tournament.”
The tournament, held on March 26, 2017, was live televised. It, staged men and women matchs in different weight categories. Mekbeb won the 75 kilogram semi professional boxers match to earn ETB50,000. The defeated Gezahegn Roba (Konso) received ETB30,000. The Federation was able to award the boxers because it collected close to ETB2 million from entrance fee, sponsorship and other contributions from invited guests. Encouraged by that, the Federation is planning to organize as many competitions as possible throughout the country.
Though the Federation does not have a sustainable income other than the yearly ETB350,000 government subsidy, its leaders are thinking about building a gymnasium where they can organize competitions and train young boxers.
Last month, Addisu was in Addis Ababa assessing how he can help the sport working with former boxers, who live abroad like him. “We are trying to see how we can support this sport technically and logistically.” says the former boxer. “We know how difficult life for a boxer is [in Ethiopia]. [That’s why] we do not want to see the new generation go through the rough path we passed through.” Addisu said. EBR
5th Year • June 2017 • No. 51