The Horn of Africa at the London Olympics

Athletes from the Horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia and Kenya, are renowned for their middle and long distance running, and not just in the region. They are recognized and honored not only by their own peoples and governments, but by millions around the world. They have a tradition of winning in athletic competitions everywhere including the Olympic Games. Demonstrating their courage, strength and endurance, the Horn of Africa’s athletes have made their nation’s flags and national anthems synonymous with international athletic victories including the Olympic Games. The London Olympics Games ended on August 12th after 17 days of eventful competition between athletes and the Horn of Africa athletes proudly upheld the honor of their countries, their region and of Africa before the world.

Ethiopian athletes demonstrated their ability in dazzling style, with Ethiopia finishing 25th in the medals’ table, with three gold, one silver and three bronze medals. It came second in Africa to South Africa and 5th from the world in athletics. Tirunesh Dibaba, who won double gold medals in the women’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the Beijing Olympics four years ago, was in exceptional form despite being plagued by injuries over the last two years, winning the gold medal once again in the women’s 10,000 meters and taking a bronze medal in the 5,000 meters. Meseret Defar, winner of the gold medal for the women’s 5,000 meters at the Athens Olympics in 2004, magnificently returned to form to win the gold again in London. Tiki Gelana’s unexpected win in the women’s Marathon brought Ethiopia its third gold medal. Bronze medals were won by Sofia Assefa in the women’s 3000 meters steeplechase, the first time Ethiopia has won a medal at this distance, and by Tariku Bekele in the men’s 10,000 meters. Dejen Gebremeskel won a silver medal in the men’s 5000 meters. With Mohammed Aman (800meters) and Abeba Aregawi (1500 meters) reaching the finals in their distances, Ethiopian athletes also showed they were beginning to challenge for shorter distances for the first time.. The Athletics Team arrived back on Thursday and was welcomed at Bole International Airport and at Addis Ababa Stadium by crowds of people and by the Speaker of the House of Federation, Kassa Tekleberhane, and the Commissioner of Sports, Abdisa Yadeta.

Kenya also produced remarkable results in finishing 28th in the overall medal table with two gold, four silver and five bronze medals. Four years ago in Beijing it finished 13th, with six gold, four silver and four bronze medals. This time in London its two gold medals came from Ezekiel Kemboi in the men’s 3,000 meters steeplechase and from David Rudisha in the 800 meters with a magnificent world record. Timothy Kitum took the bronze medal in the same race, with Botswana’s Nijel Amos taking the silver. In the women’s marathonMary Keitany and Priscah Jeptoo took the silver and bronze medals and Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich also took the silver and bronze medals in the men’s marathon. In the women’s 10,000 meters Kenya’s Sally Kipyego and Vivian Cheruiyot took the silver and bronze medals respectively, and Vivian Cheruiyot also took the silver medal in the women’s 5,000 meters. Kenya got another bronze medal in the men’s 10,000 meters with Pkemei Longosiwa.

One of the more unexpected results was Stephen Kiprotich’s impressive victory for Uganda in the Marathon. It was the first Olympic medal to be won by Uganda in the marathon and its first gold medal in forty years. All the other countries in the region participated, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia. They failed to win any medals but Somalia’s participation after two decades of conflict was particularly notable. Somalia sent a two person athletics team, Mohamed Mohamed for the men’s 1,500 meters and Zemzem Mohammed Farah for the women’s 400 meters, to realize the dream of participation in the Olympic Games for two athletes who have spent much of their lives running to avoid bullets in a brutal civil war. The best known Somali runner, however, was Mohamed Farah, the Somaliland-born British gold medalist in both the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters, emulating the feat of Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele in Beijing four years ago.

The Horn of Africa as a region and Africa as a continent won less medals in London than in Beijing, and there were less African countries in the medals table. Nevertheless, many of the performances of Africa’s sportsmen and women were among the world’s best and some, notably Kenya’s David Rudisha, Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich, and Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana, Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba really stood among many great races.

On the final day of the London Olympic Games one other event must be mentioned. On the afternoon of August 12th a small group including Ethiopia’s greatest distance runner, Haile Gebreselassie; Brazil’s football legend, Pele; and the Somaliland-born British double gold medal winner, Mohamed Farah gathered at the UK Prime Minister’s office in Downing Street with other Prime Ministers, ministers, business leaders and heads of international agencies. The meeting was called to discuss what could be done to help the many children who are permanently damaged by lack of proper food in early years of life. The meeting was co-hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Brazilian Vice-President Michel Temer, whose joint statement declared: “As current and future hosts of the Olympic Games, we share a passion to unlock everyone’s potential. This starts with good nutrition and disease control in early childhood. This is why today we challenge governments, civil society organizations and the private sector to go faster to reach the 170 million children around the world affected by malnutrition.”

The aim was to look at the problem of constant, every day hunger, rather than the more visible problems of famine and starvation, to raise the profile of a neglected issue and focus was on practical solutions, particularly on technical solutions that would yield high returns for relatively little cost. The aim is to provide a lasting legacy from the London Olympic Games in response to the problems of hunger and malnutrition: "Every hour of every day, 300 children die because of malnutrition, often simply because they don’t have access to the basic, nutritious foods that we take for granted”, says Save the Children. The aim of the summit was to build on the momentum generated by President Barack Obama’s increased commitment to nutrition and smallholder farmer productivity announced at the recent G8. “Long-term investments in agriculture by the private sector, governments, and the wider development community can help build self-sufficiency for millions of poor farming families."


* Originally published on A Week in the Horn, on Aug. 17, 2012, titled “The Horn of Africa at the London Olympics”. Republished here with a permission to do so.

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