Geremew Denboba: The first successful Ethiopia athlete in Olympics

10 Jul 2016

Ethiopia competed in the Olympic games for the first time at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. The team had a very exhausting flight from Addis Ababa and it took them nearly seven days to arrive Melbourne. Geremew Denboba is one of the twelve competitors, took part in ten events in two sports, Athletics and Cycling. In Individual Road Race, he stood 24th in the competition and won first place ahead of Asian and African competitors.

Geremew is the most successful cyclist Ethiopia has ever had. All in all, he won 26 cups, 32 gold and silver medals in various national and international tournaments. Recently, The Ethiopian Herald Guest page invited Geremew Denboba to share his professional and personal life with the general public. Excerpts:


Let us begin with introducing yourself to our esteemed readers.

To begin with, my name is Geremew Denboba. I was born in 1934 and raised in place commonly known as Habtegiorgis. I have got seven brothers and six sisters. I am the eleventh child to my parents. I completed my primary and secondary education in Kokebe Tsibah School which is situated around Kebena area. While we're on the subject, my father is a Soddo Gurage. The way how he moved to Addis Ababa makes me laugh. The thing was, my father was a traveller leather salesman. He possessed nearly two hundred mules for the aforementioned purpose. He bartered his goods for commodities such as coffee, salt and other goods. There were no residential houses in the capital at that point in time. Someday, the emperor’s soldiers took my dad directly to Emperor Menelik without prior notice. My dad did not know what was going on there. He was seriously confused. Fortunately, the Emperor ended up saying, “Please do not leave me alone. Build a house in Addis Ababa right away.”

My father did not hem and haw a little bit even to fulfil the emperor's interest. Almost immediately, he built a beautiful house opposite to the Anwar Mosque in three months time. Last of all, Emperor Menelik asked my father to bring all his family members within the shortest time possible. In this fashion, my family moved to the capital. I was a one year old baby at the time Italy invaded our country.

What inspired you to get yourself engaged in cycling sport?

In fact, many bicycles came to Ethiopia following the invasion of Italy. There were different types of modern bicycles in every nook and cranny of the capital. Previously, the French, Germans and Italians were famous cyclists. Cycling sport was popular in most countries and there were many cycling competitions worldwide.

To return to your question, when I was seven years old, I set in motion riding a bicycle sitting on the top tube for my height did not allow to take the weight off my feet on the bike saddle. My mother had bought me a bike with 30 birr and I used to ride a bicycle to go to school which was more than five kilometres away from my home. I did not know that my muscle in every parts of my body was swelling over and over again seeing that everything was as cheap as dirt.

Do you remember the first day you participated in cycling competition?

At the outset, cycling competition was held in the capital after the end of Italian invasion. In the first competition I took part there were more than seventy cyclists and at the end of the day, I took seventh place. Honestly speaking, words fail me to express how much I was angry. Back then competitions were only organized by individuals interested in cycling sport.

After two years, I took part in youth cycling competition and took first place. Last but not least, I was awarded a packet of biscuits, twenty five birr and a bottle of wine. Later than two weeks, I played a part in cycling competition and turned out to be victorious effortlessly. Fortunately, as there were emerging clubs in the capital, I joined one of them and began harvesting the fruit of victory in a little while. My fame spread like a wildfire in the blink of an eye across the country. Someday, Ato Ferde Kassa, one of the founders of cycling competition came to our school and surprised me with good news. He asked me whether I was champion the day before and I confirmed the reality nodding my head. Then he awarded me new bike. Above and beyond, he offered me the chance to join his club. I was not able to believe my ears and my eyes. I brought him up to get a permission from my mother as my father spent most of his time in various monasteries of the country. Fortunately, I got the permission. However, the instant I joined the major league, I lost in seven competitions as there were many famous cyclists who had vast experiences in cycling competition.

How did you lose the game seven times?

Honestly speaking, Afework Wolde-Micheal was a phenomenal cyclists. Nobody can catch-up with him for the most part in the last lap. In spite of the fact that I made an effort to get closer to him over and over again, I was not able to come nearer to him in the finishing line. Most cyclists were physically fit. When I was at a loss what to do, I began doing hard-hitting trainings focusing fully on finishing styles. I did training until something bitter like a lemon came out of my body. I kept on doing training with huge stamina.

Did you achieve the intended target following the hard-hitting training?

Yes, I did. Frankly speaking, I set in motion wining in different races with no trouble. More to the point, I kept on doing speed exercise three or four times a week. Nobody was able to come first ahead of me for ten or so years in the history of the country. I won more than one hundred competitions. What is more, I competed with foreign nationals mostly came from Eritrea and again I managed to be victorious over them. Just then, Eritreans were sure that they would come first without difficulty as their trainers were Italians.

How did you get the chance of involving yourself in Melbourne Olympics?

To start with, I had received awards from Emperor Haile-Selassie following my achievement in cycling competition. He gave me a piece of advice with regard to what I had to do to compete at international level. I grew to be entirely unbeatable. Almost immediately, the idea of participating in Melbourne Olympics came to my mind and hence I prepared an application letter to the Emperor. I knew that the emperor used to travel to Debre Zeit town. One morning, I went to Meshualkya where he started his journey to Debre Zeit and waited for him. After I had greeted him affectionately when he passed by the street, I went behind him on my bicycle. They were around seven cars and I tried my best to catch up with them.

When we arrived in Dukem, I waved the application letter holding high in the air. The instant the emperor saw me, he ordered the higher government officials to stop before long. This time, General Mekonne Denek got out of the car straight away and took me to the emperor. I told the emperor that I would like to compete in the Melbourne Olympics. Then the emperor asked me how I was able to compete with cyclists from different parts of the world. I said, “World cyclists ride 42-kms an hour. I do the same in my country.” All things considered, we got an appointment to meet at the Emperor’s office.

The following day, I went to the National Palace and the Emperor was surrounded by generals and other high government officials. He was hearing various cases of the general public. The emperor again asked the same question in his office and I responded in the same way. Exclusive of any shilly-shally, the emperor granted me permission to take part in the Melbourne Olympic.

When I looked around after I had forwarded my deep respect and appreciation, General Debebe Haile-Mariam urged me to kiss the emperor's shoes which was a privilege and honour only few had it. In the same way, when Abebe Bikila returned home winning gold medal from Rome Olympic, he was made to kiss the emperor shoes during the award ceremony. I did not know that nobody was allowed to kiss the emperor’s shoes except the prime mister and the emperor’s children.

How was the preparation before you left for Australia?

Before we left for Australia we were taken directly to Debre Zeit Air Force compound for training. We were doing tough trainings day in, day out with an eye to achieving the intended target in the Melbourne Olympic. There were no hotels. Exclusive of any hyperbole, we looked as weak as water due to the pressure of the training. The emperor came there all of a sudden and asked one member of the Olympic Committee if we were going to represent our country seeing that we looked weak. He was not happy with how we look. Yidnkachew, who was a member of the Olympic Committee responded to the emperor that it was the tough training that made us to look tired. “You can see their muscle and witness the reality on your own.” Almost immediately," said Yidnekachew to the emperor and urged me to show my muscle. I rolled up my trouser and showed the emperor. He was very much surprised along this line and ordered the concerned body to take us to Genet hotel. We were nearly twenty two in number including the team leaders. At the end of the day, the emperor left for America twenty three or so days ahead of our departure.

How do you describe the Melbourne Olympic?

A number of athletes and cyclists were made to play a part in the Melbourne Olympics. Our journey was heart-rending. We travelled for seven days by air plane known as Dakota. As I have learnt later from unidentified source, the plane was used to transport coffee and leather across the country. This being the case, all our efforts went for nothing. We lost weight fast. We arrived in the Melbourne Olympic village only three days ahead of the competition. I competed in the inevitable cycling race which covered more than a hundred ninety kilometres. As I did not have the faintest idea about the ground rules of cycling competition, I was leading almost the whole distance at the forefront. This was the point where the problem inflamed. All in all, I took 24th place in the contest.

What was the return journey home like?

When we returned home from Australia, we were made to give male and female kangaroos to the emperor. We did not have the faintest idea about the secret behind. Coming with the kangaroos was like adding fuel to the fire. Their food was rotten bananas and tomatoes. They smelled badly. Our nose was not working as it should be. The journey was maddening and heartrending. If God had not spared our lives in His mercy, we would have closed our eyes never to open them again once and for all. Regretfully, when we reached home, we were not given an award following our victory and of course the kangaroos died within a couple of months.

Following the Melbourne Olympics, I had made myself ready to take part in the Rome Olympics. I was in good shape at that point in time. Above and beyond, I was on familiar terms with the fundamentals of finishing styles. All the contestants knew that I would win the contest without problems. All eyes were on me. When two laps stay behind to draw to a close, the contestants shoved me behind closed my ways and thus I felled down. My hand was broken into three parts in a little while. I was covered in bandages in this regard. All my efforts went for nothing all at once. It was the victory of Abebe Bikila helped me to stop thinking about my pain.

Can you tell us more about Abebe Bikila’s victory?

I have the courage to say, Abebe Bikila has made the entire Olympic team filled with infinite happiness. Prior to the race, I gave him a piece of advice as bicycle and marathon races are more or less like peas in a pod. While we are on the subject, athlete Merawi Gebru, the 10,000mts runner was seriously sick as he felled down at some stage in the race. He nearly escaped death. While we were visiting him, Abebe said; “You were to lose your precise life trying to run at equal intervals with foreign nationals. To be frank, when the marathon race kicks off, I will take eleventh place no matter what the cost may be. Not a soul would take this position out of my hand.”

Abebe Bikila and Abebe Waqjira were wearing number eleven and twelve tee-shirts respectively. I swallowed my anger and kept quiet as if I did not feel a thing. When three hours to start the race stay behind, the Ethiopian ambassador and Yidnkachew put in appearance with Abebe Bikila. I began pouring out my ideas furiously to our hero. I said, “I do believe you remember what you said to Merawi. You said I would take eleventh place in the marathon. If Merawi goes to meet his maker, we will not bury him here. We put his body in fridge and take him home wrapping with Ethiopian flag. When you run if your lung comes through your mouth, push it in harder using your finger. If your legs fail to run, stab them with your finger nails.”

When the race began, a Moroccan runner named Raddi rocketed to the forefront and followed by some runners. Abebe Waqjira and Abebe Bikila stayed behind in the second group. There was a little distance gap between the two groups. As I learnt from him, when what I told him sprang into his mind, he came up to the first group. They were more than twenty. After they run 35 kms, Abebe Bikila and Raddi started to lead the pack. Raddi began speeding fast. When Abebe Bikila was to take the go drink, the Moroccan athlete unnoticeably shoved him and spit on his face. Our hero kept on running for the reason that he realized how much Raddi was getting weaker and weaker. Finally his trainer, Major Onni Niskanen informed him only two kilometres remained to the finishing line. Finally he sprinted and won the first place.

How was the reaction of people after his victory?

Nobody had expected he would win the race. The Olympic Committee did not have the name of Abebe Bikila for they did not expect he would win the race. Everybody kept on waiting to figure out the winner long-sufferingly. They had in their hands lists of other famous athletes of the world but not Abebe's. The stadium was very quiet for a while as the whereabouts of the winner was not made public. They brought the profile of our son from the Olympic village. His victory made all Ethiopians proud.

The commentator began saying, “This black African is from our Ethiopia. He is a soldier. His name is Corporal Abebe Bikila. The other one is Abebe Waqgira. He is also from Ethiopia.” By the way, he was a private solider in the Imperial Bodyguard. Astonishingly, General Mengistu Neway, the head of the bodyguards had the sense of hearing the news. He soon sent a letter saying, “We have sent you a corporal rank which was given by the Italians. We have approved the rank. You can wear your corporal rank, congratulations!”

Why did you shift to coaching?

As I have tried to mention so far, I was not able to stumble upon a single person who would be victorious over in cycling competition. Nobody was able to catch up with me by mistake even. When I was at a loss what to do, I made up my mind to shift my profession to coaching with the intention of producing a number of competent cyclists for my country. I brought into being countless cyclists for my country at any price. More to the point, I was able to lead the Ethiopian cycling team as a head coach in the Tokyo Olympic Games. I have travelled to various parts of the world with the team sharing my untapped experience. My mother has made me reach where I am in the present day. She was everything to me. When all's said and done, I got married and began living under the same roof with my wife and children.

Tell us about your children. Do they follow your foot step?

I have got six sons and five daughters. Four of my sons have been following my footsteps. They have played a part in German and Russia representing their country in cycling competitions. One of my sons was a champion for three consecutive years. What is more, one of my children is a mechanical engineer. Some of them live outside of Ethiopia. To cut the long story short, their bread is buttered well. Some of my children have gone to meet their maker on account of various reasons. I always see in my mind's eye that they are still alive. I have got many grandchildren. More often than not, I am taking care of them. I have the guts to say, I am leading an extraordinary life at this instant.

What is the saddest moment in your life?

There are a number of things which made me feel sad in all my born days. If truth be told, the passing away of our late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi has bled and broken my heart. I feel affection for him by a long way. He has taken the country to the new level of success out of scratch. Our country was behind the time. He is the conqueror of the Nile River. In the past, it was entirely impossible to take a scoop of water out of the Nile River. During the laying of the cornerstone, I was not able to control my feelings. I thought the whole lot was a nightmare. He has an all rounded knowledge. We have lost the father of the Renaissance Dam and the development hero of our country.

Thank you very much!



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