Abebe Bikila is a household name in Japan. Ethiopians have been preparing heavily to maintain Abebe’s legacy sixty years on. Of course, Ethiopians’ winning spirit is not a rare commodity at any athletics tournament. Yet, the delaying of the Tokyo Olympics by a year owing to COVID-19 pressures, financial strains, as well as personalized bickering and conflict amongst sport officials have affected preparations for the upcoming tournament and given discomfort to athletes. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw delves in.
For Ethiopians, preparations for the Tokyo Olympics was not only about the sporting event. The sporting festival is considered an opportune moment to celebrate the nation’s Olympic legacy. Though Ethiopian athletes were wining Olympic medals regularly in almost every Summer Games they competed in since 1960, Tokyo is one of those memorable places closely linked with the country’s history in the Olympics.
Abebe Bikila, who won his second Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964, is still a household name in Japan where he is being celebrated as a great athlete that inspired the nation. Tokyo named a road and built a statue after him. In 2014, Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, recalled his childhood memory of Abebe. “My name is Abe, but everybody teased me at school, calling me Abebe,” he said. “Many Japanese marathon runners collapsed after the race but when I saw Mr. Abebe stretching afterwards, it was such a surprise, even for a 10-year-old.”
Niway Yimer, TV Sports Presenter and Editor at the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, travelled to Tokyo two years ago as Kasama City of Japan hosted the annual Abebe Bikila Memorial Half Marathon. He had the chance to witness the significance of the historic ties between Ethiopia and Japan.
“The Japanese see Tokyo 1964 as their rebirth after the devastation of World War II and were eager to see heroes at their Olympics. Abebe came to Tokyo after his heroic Rome 1960 Olympics victory running barefoot. They wanted him to do it again. Abebe granted their wish and won the marathon gold just 40 days after an appendicitis surgery—becoming an inspiring figure and great symbol of reemergence,” says Niway. “In their educational curriculum now, they recount Abebe’s story to show the kids that a disadvantaged background can never be a barrier to success. They tell them that hard work pays off using Abebe’s success.”
When Olympic preparations began two years ago, the Ethiopian Olympic Committee (EOC) tried to take advantage of the historic sentiment and symbolism of Tokyo 1964. In collaboration with the Ethiopian Sports Commission and government, EOC designed a number of programs with a campaign dubbed “From Tokyo to Tokyo,” which aimed for influence beyond assisting the federations and athletes.
Until the International Olympic Committee and Japan announced the postponement of the games in March 2020, there were plans for mega events to raise up to ETB3 billion to build an Olympic village. However, plans didn’t go as planned as the pandemic swept over the world and other internal and external reasons resulted in the planned Olympic Village being left in limbo.
The delaying of the Olympic and Paralympic games by one year have reportedly cost Japan close to USD2 billion. In Ethiopia, financial details of the extended preparation phase are yet to be officially disclosed by EOC. But sources close to the organization indicate that the committee, which recently secured ETB15 million in financial support from the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, was facing financial limitations which hindered its ambitious preparations.
The national team of 34 members was announced on July 1, 2021, three weeks before the start of the Olympics. Dr. Ashebir and Derartu Tulu, presidents of EOC and the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), respectively, briefed the media regarding administrative issues and of the team’s adequate technical preparations for Tokyo. “We will have a strong team of athletes in Tokyo,” Dr. Ashebir emphasized.
Asfaw Dagne, Director of Competition and Participation at EAF, who has closely followed the team’s eight-month-old preparations, feels optimistic on Ethiopia’s expected results. For the official who has served the federation for over 10 years, there are positives this time around.
“Yes, COVID-19 made everything difficult. We were unable to find international races where we could evaluate the current form of athletes while they were training for months on end,” he says. “But I feel that the same challenge created opportunities for athletes to focus on their training and have adequate recovery time.”
Sydney 2000 was the most successful Summer Olympics for Ethiopians with four gold out of eight total medals. In the consecutive four games in Athens, Beijing, London, and Rio, results were not as successful.
In Tokyo, Ethiopian stars will see if the spirit of the great Abebe Bikila will help them return victorious in the most different Olympics ever seen. EBR
9th Year • Jun 16 – July 15 2021 • No. 99