One of Ethiopia's great distance athletes


Mamo Wolde, who died on May 26th aged 69, was at the forefront of African long-distance running as it emerged gloriously from the shadows in the 1960s. In a single week in 1968 he crowned his athletics career by winning a silver medal in the 10,000 metres and a gold in the marathon at the Mexico City Olympic Games.

Born on June 12th, 1932, in a village 40 miles from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Mamo Wolde was orphaned as a young boy, brought up by his godfather, and eventually recruited into Emperor Haile Selassie's palace guard. There, at the start of a friendly and career-long rivalry, he was stationed with the young Abebe Bikila.

Bikila, the younger of the pair by a few months, was destined for national adulation and sporting immortality, but in their early years as training partners, it was the precocious all-round talent of Mamo Wolde that seemed to offer more immediate promise.

At the 1956 Melbourne Games Mamo Wolde was selected for the 800 metres, the 1,500 metres and - almost incredibly in retrospect - the 4 x 400 metres relay squad.

The campaign proved to be a disaster - he finished last in both of his individual heats, and the inexperienced relay team, with Mamo Wolde running third, suffered the same fate.

At Rome in 1960 Bikila took centre stage, winning the marathon in bare feet - the first black African to hold an Olympic title and the first Ethiopian to win an Olympic medal of any sort.

Mamo Wolde was left at home for those Games, and four years later in Tokyo, when Bikila sealed his reputation for all time by becoming the first athlete successfully to defend the Olympic marathon title, Mamo Wolde could do no better than fourth place in the 10,000 metres and did not finish in the marathon.

By 1968, when the Olympic Games were held in the altitude of Mexico City, Mamo Wolde was 36 years old, Bikila was past his best, and it was the runners of Kenya's Kip Keino, Naftali Temu and Amos Biwott who were threatening to corner the middle and long-distance market.

However, on the first day of the athletics programme, Mamo Wolde gave best to Temu by only a few feet after a stirring battle over the last draining laps of the 10,000 metres.

And just one week later, after the same pair had left the rest of the field (including a struggling Bikila, who retired with a leg injury) far in their wake, Mamo Wolde finally broke Temu's resistance, and entered the stadium almost three minutes ahead of his pursuers.

He had given Ethiopia its third marathon title in a row; songs were composed in his honour at home, and he was promoted from sergeant to captain in the palace guard.

His career was by no means over. As late as 1973 he still had the stamina to win the African marathon championship, and at Munich in 1972 he established a record that still stands: his third-place finish in the marathon is still the only instance of a runner winning an Olympic medal after his 40th birthday.

However, his latter years were lived out in tragic contrast to the honour and dignity of his running career. His life was spared - unlike the lives of many of his palace guard colleagues - when Haile Selassie was overthrown in the Marxist coup of 1974, and he continued to work in the new government's armed police force.

But when, in its turn, the Mengistu regime fell in the early 1990s, Mamo Wolde found himself among more than 5,000 soldiers and officials charged with crimes dating back to the dark years of the late 1970s.

Specifically, in his case, he was charged that he was part of a detachment responsible for shooting and killing a 15-year-old boy in 1978.

For most of Mamo Wolde's last nine years he was confined to prison "awaiting trial", always protesting his innocence, heartened by a campaign for his release mounted by the International Olympic Committee, but burdened with steadily deteriorating health.

The case finally came to trial in January this year. Mamo Wolde was found guilty and sentenced to six years' imprisonment, but as he had already been in captivity for far longer than that, he was released to spend the last few months of his life with his wife and three children, by whom he is survived.

Degaga "Mamo" Wolde: born 1932; died, May 2002