In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, 36-year-old Mamo Wolde won the marathon and took second in the 10,000-meter run. He spent the last years of his life in prison for crimes that he probably did not commit.
MY CONTACT WITH MAMO WOLDE AND ABEBE BIKILA: In 1963, Olympic champion Abebe Bekila and his virtually unknown countryman, Mamo Wolde, came to run in the Boston Marathon. I got to meet both of them. At the 18th mile, the two of them were ahead of the third place runner by more than ten minutes and were ahead of the world record for the marathon by more than five minutes. Then both of them “hit the wall”. Bekila, one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, started to walk and finished in fifth place, while Mamo Wolde took 12th place in 2:35:09.
ABEBE BIKILA won both the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons. He wasn’t even supposed to be on the 1960 Ethiopian Olympic team, but was added at the last moment when one of the other runners broke a foot playing soccer. The Ethiopian team didn’t have running shoes to fit him so he ran the entire marathon in his bare feet, the same way that he trained. Bikila won in the record time of 2:15:16.2, and became the first black athlete to win an Olympic marathon gold medal. He also won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympic marathon and was the heavy favorite to win again in 1968.
WOLDE’S OLYMPIC CAREER: Wolde ran in five Olympics. He had never beaten Bikila, who was favored to win the 1968 Olympic marathon at Mexico City, but broke a bone in his leg while training just before the Olympics. Seventy-two athletes from 44 countries started the race. Abebe Bekila led from the start, with Mamo Wolde slightly behind him, because Wolde was told to help Bikila win his third consecutive Olympic marathon.
At 15 kilometers, Bekila slowed down, and so did Wolde. There was no way Mamo Wolde would have passed Abebe Bekila, but Bekila yelled at him,
“Mamo, make the ultimate sacrifice.”
Bikila: “Lieutenant Wolde.”
Wolde: “Captain Bikila.”
Bikila: “I’m not finishing this race.”
Wolde: “Sorry, sir.”
Bikila: “But Lieutenant, you will win this race.”
Wolde: “Sir, yes sir.”
Bikila: “Don’t let me down.”
Wolde increased his pace and passed Bekila for the first time ever. He thought that there were other runners ahead of him and out of sight. He didn’t know that he was in the lead until after he won the race, more than three minutes ahead of the second place finisher.
AFTER THE OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL: He went home to Addis Ababa, and was promoted to captain. In November, 1974, Emperor, Haile Selassie, at age 83, was smothered to death in his bedroom. His chief ministers, admirals and generals were machine-gunned in front of a prison wall. For the next seventeen years, a lunatic named Mengistu Haile Mariam killed at random in his Ethiopian Marxist dictatorship.
Wolde married Aymalem Beru and in 1976 they had a son, Samuel. Aymalem died in 1987, and after two years of mourning, he married Aberash Semhate and had two more children.
In 1991, Mengistu was deposed. In 1992, Wolde was imprisoned for the mass killings ordered by Mengistu; killings that he is unlikely to have performed. In 2002 he was convicted and sentenced to six years of imprisonment. He was released because he had already spent nine years in detention waiting for his trial.
Wolde died of liver cancer in 2002, at a few months after his release from prison, with his family living in poverty. Today he is buried with a guard of honor in the capital of Ethiopia, next to Abebe Bikila, his fellow Olympic marathon champion.