We began by casing the Ethiopian central prison. We drove a dented 1967 VW Beetle slowly down a muddy, unmarked Addis Ababa street, passed the Libyan Embassy, turned right and tried not to stare at a haphazard compound of cement and corrugated sheet-metal buildings. Across the road, in the rain, goats and trucks bleated and brayed at each other. Men urinated against a wall. An arch marked the main gate. In the lee of a crumbling yellow plaster watchtower, a half-dozen guards wearing thin blue overcoats watched us go by, eyes instantly locked on the faranjoch, the foreigners. A thought came: the things you do for Olympic brotherhood.
Or maybe simply the idea of Olympic brotherhood. Captive inside the prison was a man I had not seen in 23 years. I had never had more than fragmentary conversations with him. We had simply raced each other in two Olympic marathons. Was it a conceit to think, because of that, I knew him? Knew him well enough to believe he couldn't possibly deserve to be in there? Knew him well enough to try to outwit the Ethiopian prison system to get that simple message to him?
The man was Mamo Wolde, the 1968 Olympic marathon gold medal winner. Last May, Amnesty International revealed that in '92 Mamo had been rounded up with thousands of other Ethiopians suspected of involvement in the horrid human-rights abuses of the Communist regime that had been deposed the year before. He had been imprisoned, without having been formally charged with a crime, for the past three years.
Learning that, from a tiny item in the Los Angeles Times, had jerked me to my feet. Mamo Wolde? He and countryman Abebe Bikila were the greatest one-two punch in Olympic marathon history. Abebe won in Rome in 1960 (barefoot, finished in torchlight under the Arch of Constantine), and in Tokyo in '64 (shod, did calisthenics on the stadium infield after destroying the world best time), thereby beginning the great African distance running avalanche.
In Mexico City in 1968 a leg injury forced Abebe to drop out after 10 miles. Mamo, who had already taken the silver in the 10,000 meters, won that marathon, making it three in a row for Ethiopia. I placed 14th in Mexico City, but I remember Mamo only as a black-and-green wraith, vanishing ahead after 15 miles, his pace remorseless. He won by three minutes.
So the whole of our relationship was based on something that happened in the last 11 miles of the 1972 Olympic marathon in Munich. Mamo was so soundless of foot and breath that often I only knew he was running beside me by the sight of his distinguished widow's peak. With six miles to go, Frank Shorter was a minute ahead of us and increasing his lead. But when Mamo and I looked back, we seemed to have left the rest of the field behind.
We both run with our toes pointing out slightly, so at times our shoes brushed. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Mamo would say.
On a rough path in Munich's English Garden, with five miles to go, a dehydration cramp shot up my right hamstring. Mamo watched me slow and hop, grabbing my leg, and then he turned and ran on. He looked back one last time. This is what I cannot forget. His face was filled with regret. He seemed to be saying it wasn't supposed to happen this way. We were supposed to race on together, and the stronger would take the silver and the other the bronze. In fact, Belgium's Karel Lismont caught us both and finished second. Mamo got the bronze. I followed in fourth, on my twinging thigh, some 30 seconds behind, a gap that gave me a clear view of Mamo over the last couple of miles but no hope of catching him.
The postrace scene has long since taken on a strobe-light selectivity. I can clearly see how stunned Shorter was at winning. But I don't see Mamo. We must have shaken hands, congratulating, consoling, but if we did, the memory is gone.
I never saw Mamo again. He went home to Addis Ababa, where he had been promoted to captain in the Palace Guard of the aging Emperor Haile Selassie and was promised a nice house, like the one that had reportedly been given to Abebe before he died in 1973. Mamo never got it. In '74 Haile Selassie was overthrown by Ethiopian military leaders who, under Mengistu Haile Mariam, created a ruthless, hugely paranoid Communist government known as the Dergue, the Amharic word for committee.