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Kalani Simpson

Sidelines

By Kalani Simpson

Friday, December 6, 2002


Marathon man makes
long run toward heaven


THIS IS A long story with many beginnings; in Olympic competition, and in a dentist's chair in Honolulu, and with a look, just a second, one runner to another, that has resonated for more than 30 years. It is a story about heroes, and love, and the unbreakable bond of runners who have run the same race.

Most of all, this story is about marathons, and the people who run them. And a long, long journey that ends in victory, Sunday, with a triumphant, tearful reunion at this year's Honolulu Marathon.

This is the story of Mamo Wolde, a prisoner who spent the last nine years of his life marking time in a hopeless African outpost known as "The End of the World." But he was a marathoner even then, a marathoner through it all.

Wolde's story must begin foremost in Mexico City, the 1968 Olympics. And with Abebe Bikila, the barefoot champion, the man movie producer, Sports Illustrated writer, Olympian Kenny Moore calls "the most graceful person who ever trod the earth."

Bikila won the Olympic marathon in 1960, and again in 1964, and the impact on his home country, on Africa, on the running world, was immeasurable. But in 1968 his body was failing him, and 10 miles into the race he realized he would not finish. Bikila summoned Wolde to his side then, and as they ran together through the Mexico streets, Bikila ordered Wolde to win the race for country, for Ethiopia.

Wolde did not hesitate at this grave responsibility. He shouldered the commandment with a "yes sir," and with that he was off, striding determinedly away and into running mythology.

Moore was in the pack that day, when Wolde wove past him to receive destiny's call. Moore was at the finish line when the great Bikila, a captain in the Imperial guard, got out of the ambulance and saw the new Olympic champion for the first time. Bikila offered a military salute and Wolde, a lieutenant, returned it with proud precision.

Ethiopia owned the marathon then. Ethiopia had its second national hero.

JON CROSS, THE dentist, could not believe the story his patient was telling him. Moore, a sometime Kailua resident, recounted how Wolde had been imprisoned for several years, and Moore, with the help of Sports Illustrated, was headed to Africa to try to get him out of jail.

A lot had befallen Wolde and his country since those days of glory. Emperor Haile Selassie was assassinated in 1974, and Ethiopia taken over by a cruel Communist regime known as "The Dergue." Thousands were killed over the course of the revolution. Many Imperial staffers were simply lined up against a wall and shot. But a man whose image adorned the national stadium had to be spared.

He was allowed to coach, and was sometimes assigned to public appearances, a show pony with Olympic medals. He was officially posted to work for a kebele, or local government committee. A subsequent reign of terror to put down opposition took the lives of perhaps 10,000 Ethiopians. One night, Wolde was ordered to put on a uniform, and participate in the execution of a teenage boy.

Some maintain that he at first refused, and then fired his bullet into the ground. Others insist that no matter what happened that dreadful night, the boy was already dead by the time Wolde was forced to shoot.

But then in 1991 came another revolution and more civil war, and if Wolde had been accepted by the Dergue, the new regime felt he must have been guilty of something. That horrible night came back to haunt him, and in 1992 he was imprisoned without trial or official charge. Just a story of a boy who had been shot in the night more than a decade before.

It was years before Moore knew, startled upright while reading his morning paper. He and the other Olympians often wondered about Wolde while hearing about turmoil in Africa. Now the truth thundered home.

He couldn't have done it. A fellow marathon runner couldn't have done such things. "Everything about him was nonconfrontational and apolitical," said 1972 Olympic champion Frank Shorter. "If it can happen to him it can certainly happen to anyone."

Moore refused to believe that the friend he never knew could have been guilty. He recalled the 1972 Olympics in Munich, in which he and Wolde were battling fiercely for second place. This time it was Moore who broke down, grabbing his leg, falling behind.

Wolde turned back then, his face filled with humanity and soul and the great race that should have been. "He was a competitor," Moore said. "He was just quiet, he was an awe-inspiring competitor."

Such a man had to be innocent. Such a man couldn't have done these things.

Cross, the dentist, was also race director of the Honolulu Marathon, and he had run at Michigan with Marathon Association president Jim Barahal. Bikila and Wolde had been Cross's heroes then, and they still were.

He promised that day that if Wolde were ever freed he would be an honored guest at the Honolulu Marathon. He told Moore to pass this news on to the man waiting at the end of the world.

IN AFRICA, MOORE was greeted by Wolde's young wife, Aberash, the spirited, strong, serious, loving woman who had become Wolde's companion after his first wife died. She was the one who stayed sure through all of this, who raised the children and brought him food in jail, who was forever dignified and brave. Who carried on as the proud representative of the Wolde legend.

It was she who restored Moore's faith after it hit him that he was going into all this -- warily eyeing machine guns in an Ethiopian prison! -- based solely on a look back that had stayed with him for almost 30 years.

"The great good feeling that she extended to us instantly because I'd been left in the dust by her husband" -- it blew him away.

There were frustrating delays and harrowing adventures. "Our wonderful interpreter," Moore said. "He asked me not to mention his name, we may still be here today because he was so cool, saying all the right things." At last, Moore was taken to his old competitor. They rushed toward each other, and embraced. Wolde recognized the man he had run against, and run past.

Moore told him the world had not forgotten, that fellow Olympians knew his plight and fought for his cause. That in Honolulu, they longed to run with him, to race for him.

Said Wolde, "These are the words of God."

They were allowed eight minutes together. "This restores my soul," Wolde said.

Athletes and Olympians campaigned for Wolde's release, a proper trial, a formal charge, anything. NBC news and the New York Times spread the word. Olympians Bill Toomey and Kip Keino somehow got in to see him. Moore poured his heart into an acclaimed Sports Illustrated story. Wolde was famous again.

The world was moved.

The Ethiopian justice system was not.

THE YEARS DRAGGED on. Always, Wolde insisted he was innocent, said it would be better to kill him than to accuse him of such a crime.

At last, the International Olympic Committee got him a lawyer. At last, his case started to show slow signs of movement.

All the witnesses but one, back in 1992, had said Wolde hadn't killed anyone. Now, there were no witnesses against him at all. But the prosecution still stalled, and stalled. Hope waned. All the Olympic appeals had meant nothing at all.

And the years dragged on.

But Wolde was a marathoner. "A marathoner from a country of marathoners," Moore said. He would not be broken. And each week, Aberash would visit, reaching through the fence to feel his touch. He promised her then that he would get out, and that when he did he would accept no honor, no invitation without her at his side. She had been with him through all of this. She was the toughest marathoner he had ever known.

Then there was a sudden breakthrough. In January 2002 Wolde was convicted and sentenced on a lesser charge. Six years. He'd been in prison for nine. He was at home with Aberash that night.

When the news reached Kailua, Moore hung up the phone with a joyous shout, running out of the house in a delirious victory sprint.

Mamo Wolde had won again. The great Ethiopian marathoner had kept on, and finally won. Later, on the phone, he challenged his new old friend to another race, this time to celebrate. Moore was floating on air: "He seemed so strong, so wonderful."

In May, Cross called his old hero, to officially offer the invitation to the Honolulu Marathon. It would be a glorious, triumphant reunion of that 1972 Olympic race, with the top four finishers -- Shorter, Karel Lismont, who had closed hard for second, and then bronze medalist Wolde and his great friend Moore, who'd finished fourth.

Wolde declined politely. He would go nowhere without his wife.

Well, then she must come. It was Cross' standing policy. You could not invite a man to come to paradise and not bring along his love.

This was the happiest moment. They would be there, all of them together, running again and free. A dream come true.

Ten days later, Mamo Wolde died.

HE IS BURIED next to Bikila, once again at the side of his inspiration, his hero, his friend. "It was such a shock," Cross said. But Wolde knew, and Aberash did too, and so did the Ethiopian government. They had let him out, in all likelihood, to avoid the shame of having a national hero die behind bars.

Aberash is here today, in these islands, here, the fulfillment of a promise made across a prison fence. Here for a triumphant, tearful reunion at the Honolulu Marathon.

It will break her heart, and Moore's too, to walk on Kailua Beach, where the four Olympians ran together in dreams.

"It's bittersweet," Moore said, "but sweet. It's wonderful, wonderful."

Wolde's toughest, hardest-fought win still stands. His wife is here, to take this place of honor with his three Olympic brothers. She is a marathoner, too. She ran along with him in his final race.



Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com



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