The first competitive motor sport was held in 1894 from Paris to Rouen and back. Since then, the sport has made it to many countries and Ethiopia was no exception. The sporting event, which primarily involve the use of motorised vehicles, whether for racing or non-racing competition, is now counting to its 60th anniversary in the country. Despite its long age, expanding the sports has been very challenging. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with stakeholders to learn about the challenges that are dragging motor sports in Ethiopia.
Sunday morning, March 26, 2017, a little over one thousand people were gathered at Meskel Square, in Addis, to cheer the Inner City Circuit car race which was organized by Addis Ababa Motor Sports Association (AAMSA). Elsabeth Samuel, 19, was one of those just stopped to join the spectators when returning from the nearby church. Shouting for every passing car, she looks excited for being there. “I have never attended car races before. I did not even know there is this race today. But I loved it!,” she said.
However, whenever the cars change their direction at the steep curve, closer to where she was standing, Elsabeth in her religious clothing had to take steps back. “Of course, it is a bit scary. I hear the announcer keep saying ‘Be careful. It is dangerous.”
That is true. Motor racing has risks of dangers. The familiar ones in the sport understand the threat and the huge risk in it. The terrible accident that caused spectators and police officers injury about two years ago have created uncertainties regarding the fate of motor sports in Ethiopia. After racers who caused the accident got arrested on the spot by police and left to defend themselves against other general driving laws, most of the racers decided to boycott races. They even signed a petition requesting legal protection against the possible lawsuit for accidents related to the sports.
“Obviously, car racing is a sport associated with sudden accidents. Ours is not different. The legal proceedings following accidents should also be comparable with other countries,” argues Anteneh Belachew, 39, who competed in different races for over a decade. “First, we take big risk in our own lives being in the race; And now we all became afraid of the potential huge price we may pay if something bad happens while we are competing. We have families to take care of.” asserts Anteneh.
Ermias Ayele, the President of Ethiopian Motor Sports Association (EMSA) understands the racers frustrations. Most of the racers exercise the sport just for their passion. “We all know that there is no huge financial reward in it. The winner of our races might not gain the money that can buy tires for his/her car. They incur considerable cost when preparing for races and take their own risk in life for their passion. “Adding another risk of being sent to jail yet again discourages the racers”. Ermias added.
Some argue that the racers claim cannot be valid since the victims, like the man that walked in just to cross the road two years ago around Mekanisa, might not understand the risks involved. Freeing the racers from the potential criminal charges might relief those in the sports. But, there is no guarantee that they would be cautious for the innocent victims on the road. “That is what the government officials we talked to want to see given considerable attention. The Association was told to work on its assignments regarding the safety measures that can be taken in every possible way. Then EMSA can expect the government’s contribution,” says Sisay Tadesse, a legal advisor who once worked with EMSA on this specific issue.
To facilitate part of its assignments, EMSA has already organized sensitization workshops on the nature and legal aspects of motor race sport to different stakeholders, including government officials, police officers and spectators. “In those workshops I realized the wider awareness gap. There were people who never know motor sports as an officially recognized sports by the government.”
Looking for plot of land to build motor racing circuit venue, which can minimize the potential accident to their parties, is another solution. That would also give a very good opportunity to racers to have regular trainings. For the city like Addis that has no such place to check the racers’ noisy and speedy cars, going for separate venue would definitely be excellent. Venues can attract many spectators and create regular fans.
Many people think ‘motor sports’ in Ethiopia is still dominated by foreigners and half-castes who follow their family tradition in racing. Anteneh disagrees with this. “That is becoming history. Majority of men who competed at the inner city circuit car race recently were young Ethiopians who were relatively new faces.”
In the country that still possesses a slightly over 700,000 cars, expanding motor sports participants seems another challenge. Anteneh believes that car racing passion is something that transfers through ones progeny. “You can meet many who inherited the sports from their fathers. Some of my friends’ children seem already fall in love with driving. My 10 years old son is no different,” said Anteneh.
‘Motor sports’ in Ethiopia is now counting to its 60th anniversary since its inception in 1958. The Ethiopian Highland Rally was first held in January 1965 and became very popular in years with the strong support of its patron, Merid Azmach Asfa Wossen, Ethiopia’s Crown Prince. The Rallies went until the 9th edition in 1973 and ceased for 17 years after the Military Derg regime labeled it as landlord’s pastime. Only in the later years was Motorbikes racing begin in the country and then car racing resumed in 1992 following the regime change.
EMSA, which is recognized by Federation International de I’ Automotive (FIA), has now 265 members. Some question why motor sports in Ethiopia look infant even though it has been there for over half a century.
“This sport has unique challenges,” says Ermias. Previously the privilege to import duty free sport cars was available. That opportunity is not there now. Witnessing very old cars in Ethiopian races is now common. Though the association has difficulties to deal with, history tells us that the sport survived a lot more obstacles in years.
The Association believes the sport can grow here. They plan to increase the regional associations along with Addis Ababa Motor Sports Association (AAMSA), which was established a year ago and has now gained a status of federation. “With strong and regular races, we can become one destination for sport tourism. That in turn creates other related local businesses, as well as jobs,” says the president. EBR
5th Year • May 2017 • No. 50