Sinking Swimming Sport

Despite the availability of many lakes and rivers, Ethiopians have yet to embrace the sport of swimming. Many are hard-pressed to name any professional Ethiopian swimming icons. Lack of proper attention given to the activity, shortage of financing as well as the unavailability of swimming facilities is hindering the sport from growing, as EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw reports.

Two years have passed since Robel Kiros, an Ethiopian swimmer who dominated the social media headlines, finished last in the 100 meter freestyle in Rio 2016. The then-24 year old received bullying and body shaming on the internet just minutes after he finished half a length later than everyone else in the pool. Today, Robel, who vowed two years ago to come back stronger for the Tokyo 2020 games, has retired from the sport, and has even left to work in the United States. But the dust raised following his controversial appearance at the Olympics has not fully settled. In fact, the failures of the Ethiopian Swimming Federation (ESF) and regional bodies seem to be sticking in people’s minds.

Kiros Habte, Robel’s father, who faced nepotism accusations at home for favoring his son at the Rio Olympics, is still the president of ESF. He has two more years left on his second term in office. “Budget constraints and a lack of standardized facilities keep us from organizing competitions,” says Kiros. “Financially, we are weak. The championship held in Arbaminch last year alone cost ETB 350,000, which exceeded the overall budget we had for the year. We have been looking for sponsors to strengthen our financial situation, but we have not been that successful.”

The Swimming Federation receives a budget of only ETB250,000 annually, while a budget of over a billion Birr is allocated to football activities. The Federation organizes just one annual championship, in which regional teams compete. This year, only four regions sent teams to the annual championship in Arbaminch. The only other possible contest a swim team can compete in is the All-Ethiopian Games.

Even though Kiros believes he tried his best to improve the sport, many struggle to remember any of his career successes. “Competitive swimming in Ethiopia is dying before our very eyes. We do not have many competitions. You cannot find enough clubs. No facilities… nothing!” claims Michael Getachew, a coach who started competing in various swimming competition when he was nine, in the mid 1980s. “Back then, we had 17 clubs. 16 were based in Addis Ababa and one in Bishoftu (Debrezeit).”

The ESF is responsible for the administration of swimming and other disciplines, like synchronized swimming, diving, water polo and open water swimming. “The Federation has stopped everything else except for swimming competition,” explains Michael.

Although the country is blessed with a plethora of lakes and rivers, swimming not widely practiced in Ethiopia. People that are fortunate enough to live near bodies of water are confronted with water that is not conducive to swimming. Although this can be overcome by building free or fee-based recreational public swimming pools, the sport has not managed to win the hearts of the government or investors.

Hotels construct public swimming pools mainly for the use of their own guests. There are very few pools designed to accommodate swimming competitions, like the one found in Ghion Hotel. Accessing those standardized pools that are available is not easy. Hotels are often unwilling to rent their pools out for competitions, as it would deny access to their regular users. If they ever do agree to rent out the pools, they ask for expensive prices. This, according to Kiros, makes organizing competition expensive, even for the Federation.

On the other hand, there are a few swimming clubs in the country. Even in the capital city there is no swimming club operating currently.

The state of Amhara has formed four clubs which often compete in town and interregional competitions, while the state of Oromia established a new club, Oromia Police Club, which is the only representative of the region.

As a result, Ethiopia is far behind in swimming even compared to its neighbors that are yet to develop the sport. Kenya, which established a school to train swimmers, managed to win dozens of medals at various regional and international championships, while their Ethiopian counterparts failed to do so, chiefly due to the low level of attention paid to the sport.

Inspector Sisay Woyesa, the Oromia Police Club representative, blames the Federation for failing to organize competitions. “We have 12 swimmers and put three to four million Birr into the club. But we cannot organize competitions in a region where we have one team,” Sisay explains.

Competitions attract more people to join the sport, argues Sisay. “You cannot complain about having few clubs. Do we have enough talent to come through? Are we able to organize competitions where the clubs can compete? If the Federation works to increase the number of clubs and competitions, the money will come.”

Kelbesa Eba, office head of the Federation, admits they have a lot of things to work on. “The assignment is for all of us. It is true that we have few competitions. But only four regional states sent teams to the championship. Most cite budgetary reasons for their absence,” he says.

But Kelbesa thinks “the Rio effect” is still costing the Federation. “I think that [the bad] reputation [of the national Federation] has disheartened regional federations. There are people who demand [leadership] changes, which have to come through election.”

“We already gave up on Kiros’s leadership. I personally do not see any changes happening while this same leadership is in the office,” says the frustrated Sisay.

It is starting to look like Kiros realizes he has to leave. “I am not enjoying the presidency,” he says. “I wish I could resign now. But I will walk out formally to make it smooth for the next person. I feel I cannot make a difference in this position with all the obstacles and negative perceptions,” he says. “I never took per diems and other payments. Rather, I subsidized the Federation from my own pocket when necessary. But I will stay in the sport because swimming is my passion.”

Of course Kiros’ passion for the sport can be demonstrated by the effort he put into training his son, Dagim, eight, whom he hopes will win medals in the future. Six-year old Soliyana and four-year old Amen are Kiros’ other two children whom he hopes can conquer Ethiopian swimming records.

“I am mentoring and coaching five kids, including three children of mine. I spend over ETB15,000 every month on their different expenses,” says Kiros, who owns a furniture business in Adama.

Although Kiros is hoping for a family glory soon, many others are awaiting his departure from the office, hoping that better days will finally come to Ethiopian swimming.

6th Year • Aug.16 – Sep. 15 2018 • No. 65

Abiy Wendifraw

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