Mamo Wolde, who died at 69 last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, ran as softly as an Abyssinian cat, and his victory in the 1968 Olympic marathon in Mexico City, after countryman Abebe Bikila's wins in 1960 and 1964, made the marathon Ethiopia's own.
Wolde was fated to embody his nation's anguish. Not long after he took the marathon bronze at the '72 Games in Munich (I finished fourth), Ethiopia's emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown. For 14 years Mengistu Haile Mari-am ruled a Marxist dictatorship known as the Derg. Revolutionaries killed tens of thousands. Wolde's medals saved him, but when the Derg was ousted in 1991, the new regime swept up thousands of Mariam sympathizers and, in 1993, imprisoned Wolde as well. For four years he wasn't charged; men he was accused of taking part in the 1978 murder of a 15-year-old boy. Wolde swore he was innocent and that an army officer had done it. Wolde said another officer then ordered Wolde to shoot a second bullet into the body, but that he, before witnesses, purposely missed.
I visited Wolde in a crumbling Addis Ababa prison in 1995. The ensuing SI story (Dec. 4, 1995) sparked a relay of Olympians appealing for his release. Mexico City champions Bill Toomey (decathlon) and Kip Keino (1,500 meters) brought to Wolde and the Ethiopian government a letter from IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch inviting him to carry the flame at the Atlanta Games. Ethiopia refused to consider the request. When Wolde's trial began in 1999, none of the prosecution's witnesses could say they had seen Wolde do anything wrong. "It was all hearsay," he said.
Nevertheless, the prosecutor was given three more years to build a case while Wolde rotted in prison with bronchitis and liver problems. But the great, uncrackable marathoner outlasted Ethiopia. In January of this year a judge convicted him of taking part in the killing, sentenced him to six years and released him because he'd already served nine. "Free at last," he said. "I am innocent, but I hold no malice toward anyone. I never felt abandoned, thanks to the brotherhood of Olympians."
The last four months of his life were filled with bliss and honor. He lived in Addis Ababa with his wife, Aberash Wolde-Semhate, and their two children, ages 12 and 10. "The children hug me all the time," Wolde said, laughing. "If I go to the store, we all have to go, kids and wife and me, in a big tangle of love."
On the phone his voice was electric. "Hey" he said to me in April, "give me a few months to recuperate, and I'll race you any distance you want, anywhere you want." Last month, after accepting an invite to December's Honolulu Marathon, he told me his liver condition was flaring up. Ten days later he was dead.
It's heart-wrenching that after enduring so much, he has gone so quickly. I can only imagine that when he reached his finish, in the embrace of his family, he was completely spent. I have no doubt he went at peace, as befits a marathoner, knowing the rightness of all things physical having an end.