Mamo Wolde: a forgotten Ethiopian Hero

Abebe and Mamo were inseparable friends

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – When the tombstones of Ethiopian Olympic heroes Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde were desecrated almost four years ago, sports fans in Ethiopia and elsewhere were all saddened and angry by the cruel acts.

A number of Ethiopia’s star athletes, including world marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie, visited the site and expressed their utter dismay at what they saw. But nothing was done. There was no real effort by the Ethiopian government, the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF), the country’s elite athletes, the media and wealthy individuals to raise funds and rebuild the tombstones.

What ensued was an unnecessary discourse between Abebe Bikila’s family and Abeselom Yihdego as to who should restore them. Abeselom Yihdego is the longtime athletics supporter, philanthropist and owner of Keste Damena Foam Factory, who financed the construction of Abebe Bikila tombstone some 35 years ago.  Mamo Wolde’s tombstone was built 8 years ago.

Amazingly, the only effort to start a fundraising campaign to repair the tombstone came from Ito Takashi, Director of Agence Shot in Tokyo, a Japanese track and field photography service agency.

Abeba Bikile and Mamo Wolde are still regarded by many Japanese as heroes and as two of the greatest marathon runners of the world. Abebe won the Tokyo Olympic marathon in a stunning solo run and Mamo Wolde won in Mexico City four years later after a fierce battle with Japanese silver medalist Kenji Kimihara.

Finally, after 3 years, 8 months and 14 days since the desecration of the tombstones and on the 37th memorial anniversary of the passing of Abebe Bikila (October 25, 1973), a newly restored tombstone of Abebe Bikila, which was built by his family, was officially unveiled in the presence of family members, friends and other dignitaries.

The desecrated tombstones of Abebe (left) and Mamo

According to Yetnayet Abebe Bikila, the son of the late Olympic hero, the newly restored tombstone, was built at a cost of 350,000 Birr and is the creative work of Ethiopia’s famous sculptor Tadesse Maru. It rests on a 75-square meter spot, and is adorned with 17 Olympic rings to symbolize the 17th Rome Olympiad where Abebe Bikila won Ethiopia’s gold medal in 1960.

While we rejoice the good news about Abebe Bikila, there was no mention as to when Mamo Wolde’s tombstone will be rebuilt. Mamo Wolde is simply an Ethiopian tragedy and a forgotten hero, who deserves as much respect and adulation as the great Abebe Bikila.

Mamo Wolde was one of Ethiopia’s pioneer athletes who took part in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games in the 400m and 800m.

He won Ethiopia’s 3rd consecutive Olympic marathon gold medals in Mexico in 1968, after defending champion Abebe Bikila was forced to withdraw midway through injury. He also won a silver medal in the 10,000m race.

At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, Mamo won a bronze medal in the marathon at the age of 40.

Mamo Wolde was one of Ethiopia’s greatest athletes, whose life was cut short by illness on May 26, 2002.

Abebe Bikila (right) & Mamo's tombstones before vandals desecrated them

Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde were very close friends. As members of the Imperial Body Guards, they trained and competed together, and despite their fame, there was no animosity and both showed great admiration and respect for each other. Even in death, they were inseparable. Their tombstones were erected next to each other. Poems and songs have been written about them and a book was also published some two or three decades ago detailing their athletics accomplishments.

Now that Abebe Bikila’s tombstone has been restored, efforts should be made by all sports fans to do likewise to honor the great service that Mamo rendered for his country. It will be a tragedy to leave his tombstone in shambles like that.

To this day, no suspect has been brought to justice.