If history doesn’t repeat itself note for note, it’s been said to at least rhyme verse to verse.
This November 2021, the TCS New York City Marathon celebrated its 50th running. Among those the New York Road Runners inducted into its Hall of Fame was 1987 champion Ibrahim Hussein, the first Kenyan to win the five-borough mega-race. Ibrahim was also the first African to win Boston (1988, ‘91, ‘92) and Honolulu (1985-`87).
After Hussein, the deluge. With wins by Albert Korir and Peres Jepchirchir in 2021, 16 Kenyan men and 13 Kenyan women have now won in NYC, the most by any nation.
Beyond the individual Kenyan athletes’ talent and drive, and the inspiration from athletes like Hussein, one of the often overlooked factors in Kenya’s long domination of distance running has been the political stability it achieved since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1963 following 75 years of colonial rule.
Except for a short two-month spasm of violence following the controversial presidential election of December 2007, when long-standing tribal land disputes erupted into 1000 deaths and hundreds of thousands more dislocations, Kenya has remained largely free of the political strife that has consumed many of its East African neighbors.
Somalia offers an opposite trajectory. Formed by the unification of Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland in 1960, Somalia was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1969 to 1991 before being overthrown by clan-based guerrillas. When George Mason University grad Abdi Bile won the 1500m gold medal at the 1987 IAAF World Championship in Rome, he became a national hero in Somalia.
But Bile’s victory in Rome coincided with Somalia’s descent into anarchy at home. Thus, his celebration in Rome offered but a temporary high point set against the nation’s downward spiral. In the ensuing years, Somalia has sunk deeper into a failed state, hardly a base from which athletes can rise and flourish.
Great Britain’s Mo Farah and America’s Abdi Abdirahman are just two examples of young Somalis fortunate enough to have escaped their war-torn country to find success under other flags. Hassan Mead (USA), Bashir Abdi (BEL), and Mo Ahmed (CAN), are others.
“If I would have stayed, the odds are I wouldn’t be alive today,” Abdi once told me.
Just as I’ve often wondered who were the great Kenyan runners that we never heard of before Kip Keino came to fame in Mexico City 1968, because the system was not in place to discover them at the time, how many potentially great Somali runners do we not know today because of the country’s political instability?
Today, in Ethiopia, we read about running legend Haile Gebrselassie, 48, and other top athletes like 2016 Olympic Marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lelisa, vowing to take up arms on the front-lines, if necessary, to protect their nation against Tigrayan rebels from the north attempting to march on Addis Ababa.
A friend with deep connections in Ethiopia relayed the following.
“The TPLF (Tigray Peoples’s Liberation Front Party) is getting closer every day. I think they are only about 100 miles outside of Addis as of today. But in other parts of the country, it seems things are going better for the Ethiopian Army. Really hard to tell what’s going on. Even for those in Ethiopia. Yesterday it was reported that (the city of) Lalibela had been freed – but no one can confirm it.”
This is where history comes into view. Between 1974 and 1991, a communist junta called the Derg ruled Ethiopia. The regime did not value athletics as had the man they overthrew, Emporer Haile Selassie.
“We lost a generation of young talent to that government,” one former national coach told me during a visit I made in 2000.
A combination of Eritrean and Tigrayan insurgents toppled the Derg in 1991, after which the Eritreans declared their independence and the Tigray Peoples’s Liberation Front Party took over government positions in Addis Ababa.
Years of war ensued between the two nations until Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed signed a peace treaty with Eritrea after coming to office in 2018. For his efforts, Ahmed received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, the situation in the country has deteriorated again as Tigrayan rebels, displeased with Ahmed for having wrested power from them after 27 years, are threatening to take the capital. Ethiopia’s danger echoes other historic marches on national capitals, both successful and not.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini led a “March to Rome” that put Fascists in power in Italy. One year later, Nazi Party leader Adolph Hitler led a coalition that attempted its own “March to Berlin”, hoping to repeat Mussolini’s success.
After Munich police thwarted the 1923 coup attempt, the courts convicted Hitler of high treason and sentenced him to five years in prison. Though he only served eight months, he took from the experience a decision to turn away from insurrection, and focus instead on gains at the ballot box.
It took longer to achieve power, but in 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg named Hitler German Chancellor. And then the gloves came off.
Such is the history of man.
But history isn’t just then. It is also right now, even if we don’t see it at the moment. Today, in the USA, we see a glimmer of similarity as the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. capital still festers within the body politic. A hotly contested Congressional probe continues amidst polarized in-fighting between the Dems and Repubs.
What remains unanswered is whether the political strife in Ethiopia can resolve itself peacefully, and if the Trump-led right in America will turn to the ballot box or return to the barricades? History offers suggestions that bolster both paths.
A nation’s elders may decide on war, but it is the young who must fight it. Sport is also the province of our youth. Thus, one indicator of a nation’s stability is a flourishing sporting scene, because we know the ship of state is on an even keel, whether held there by a firm hand or one less so. Wars don’t just kill men, they snuff out their collective dreams and heroes, too.