The beautiful political inside story behind Ethiopian athletic triumphs

Rasmus Sonderriis
3 min readJul 25, 2022


Ethiopia has just been vacuum-cleaning medals at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon 2022. Here is a heart-warming story about the special meaning this time for a country plunged into a fratricidal war.

Ethiopia definitely has a strong shared Ethiopian identity, but also various ethnic and linguistic identities, which can co-exist harmoniously or be in tension with unitary patriotism.

Historically, a majority of the country’s world-class long-distance runners have been of Oromo ethnicity, but at this event, the ones to sprint first across the finishing line were mostly Tigrayans. They came as part of the Ethiopian team, but they are from Tigray, the little northern province whose leaders — who used to be the inner circle of the 1991–2018 dictatorship — have staged an armed rebellion. This small group of wealthy former strongmen also sponsor ethno-nationalist terror groups in other parts of Ethiopia, recruit child soldiers by force (though their own children go to expensive schools in the West) and have committed countless war crimes in the neighboring regions. Last November 2021, the world press predicted they were going to retake national power, and CNN even announced, mistakenly, that they had reached the gates of the capital Addis Ababa. But Ethiopia’s nascent, still-fragile democracy fought them off and pulled through its near-death experience. So today, the rebels’ main war aim is breaking up the country with the motto that “if we can’t rule Ethiopia, let there be no Ethiopia to rule at all.”

I’ll get back to the runners, but there’s a little more background.

The stuffy old guard turned plucky rebels from Tigray have long been trying to sell the conflict as an ethnic “genocide” committed against the Tigrayan people out of some supposed pathological tribal hatred of Tigrayans in general. And Tigrayans have indeed suffered terribly from the war, living under a militaristic regime with a total-war mentality. But Ethiopia has not, contrary to what the rebels and their supporters repeat ad nauseum, imposed a humanitarian blockade on Tigray, but a military one necessary to save Ethiopian lives. To verify this, all you need to do is to check the WFP updates on food deliveries.

Now back to the athletes.

At the very least, the rebels and their supporters wanted, deep down expected, the triumphant runners to stage some kind of dramatic protest “against the war on Tigray” before going into exile, like the marathon runner Feyisa Lelisa did against their oppression back in Rio 2016, when they controlled the levers of power and the Ethiopian people were struggling to get rid of them.

But no! The triumphant athletes, being both Tigrayan and Ethiopian, proudly wore the Ethiopian flag on their victory laps, hugged their team mates from other Ethiopian ethnicities, and let themselves be celebrated as Ethiopian national heroes.

It means something special to Ethiopians to show the world that they love the Tigrayans, their dear fellows. It is only the Tigrayan People’s “Liberation” Front, TPLF, that they hate.

Now Ethiopians are looking forward to the celebrations upon their heroic compatriots’ return to Addis Ababa. It will be beautiful or, as they say in the Tigrayan language, “tsebuq”.

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Rasmus Sonderriis

Danish-Chilean journalist who has spent a total of over six years in Ethiopia since 2004