MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you are a betting person – and we’re not endorsing this – but if you are, it’s a safe bet that the gold in middle-distance running in this summer’s Olympics will go to Ethiopia or Kenya. That’s because those two countries dominate the 5K and the 10K. So it was a shock to the running world when Ethiopia announced its main national team will not include the world record holder in both those races. That’s three-time Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele. Bekele says he is being discriminated against because of his ethnicity. Bekele is Oromo. NPR’s Gregory Warner tells us more about why other runners say ethnic discrimination casts a shadow over Ethiopian track.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The 23-year-old refugee I meet in Nairobi talks quietly as if to conserve energy. He’s thin and nervous. But there’s one name that can put a burst of joy on his face. That name – Kenenisa Bekele.
MOHAMED KEMAL: (Speaking Oromo).
WARNER: In fact, you smile when I even say his name.
KEMAL: (Speaking Oromo).
WARNER: This is Mohamed Kemal (ph). He’s also a runner. And he was 16 years old in 2008 when Bekele won gold medals in the 5K and the 10K races in Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2008 SUMMER OLYMPICS)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And the awesome strength – the awesome, awesome speed. He’s untouchable once again. It’s a new Olympic record.
KEMAL: (Through interpreter) (unintelligible) Kenenisa is my role model. So always I’m thinking to be wise like Kenenisa.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS RUSTLING)
WARNER: Kemal pulls out papers. They’re the finishing times for an Ethiopian half marathon in 2014.
So 1 hour 6 minutes 8 seconds – 86th.
Kemal’s time put him in the country’s top 100 that year. But before the race, he says, the coach of his running club had pulled him aside and told him to throw the race for another runner.
KEMAL: (Through interpreter) We have been told to make others too tired, but, at the finishing, to give the chance for the Tigrinya.
WARNER: Give the chance to the Tigrean, he says. Kemal is not of the Tigrean ethnicity. He’s Oromo.
KEMAL: (Through interpreter) I was discriminated because of I’m Oromo.
WARNER: Kemal refused to throw the race. He was tired, he says, of being passed over for international sponsors or forced to pay bribes for the chance to run just because of his ethnic background. But after he finished so well in the race, the furious coach told him he’d be barred from future competitions.
KEMAL: (Through interpreter) After this, things become serious.
WARNER: In November of last year, Ethiopia erupted in massive civil protest by Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group. And their complaints were various – that their ancestral land was being taken, that their children were discriminated against in education and employment. They said that Oromo who didn’t adhere to the ruling party ideology were targeted. Thousands of Oromo were arrested, including Kemal. And when he was released, he snuck over the border to Kenya. At 23 he had chosen impoverished freedom over a running career.
So let me ask you – with everything that’s happened to you, will you watch the Olympics? And if you watch it, will you be rooting for Ethiopia?
KEMAL: (Speaking Oromo).
WARNER: Kemal’s answer is complicated. A win for Ethiopia in Rio would reflect positively on a national athletics program that Kemal feels is rotten. And his role model, Kenenisa Bekele, won’t be running. But the other Ethiopian runners are men and women that he knows and admires. How can he not cheer if they win?
KEMAL: (Through interpreter) When my colleagues won that’s – that race, I become excited.
WARNER: So you focus on the face and not on the flag?
KEMAL: (Through interpreter) Yes.
WARNER: But of course the headline, if that happens, will be Ethiopia clinches another gold. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.