The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Monday, September 10, 2007

Happy Ethiopian New Millenium

Your likely response would abbreviate to "WTF?" Not only because you wonder how in the hell their third millennia begins tommorrow, but why it has a damn thing to do with track & field.

If you're curious about the details, Wikipedia has the rundown. Ethiopia's new year begins on September 11 because they still use the Gregorian calendar, and using ancient Egyptian reckoning rather than the more common European method their year count is off by eight (or ours is, depending on how you look at it).

Now, how is this important here? Be patient. If you don't know anything about Ethiopia aside from the fact that they produce great distance runners, you'll learn something today.

Ethiopia is a Christian nation, and the only sub-Saharan African nation to be so before colonial times. Their particular denomination is very old and has some fairly interesting variations; my knowledge is cursory and comes mostly from a bizarre and interesting book, The Sign and the Seal.

If you liked Raiders of the Lost Ark and The DaVinci Code, you'll eat up The Sign and the Seal. Unlike the other two, it purports to be factual and traces the history and movement of the Ark of the Covenant to its current holding place--in Axum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia. Much of the book is controversial and speculative, but one thing it conveys without doubt is the attitude of Ethiopians. Every religious Ethiopian takes it as an article of faith that the Ark is held at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum. Nearly all Ethiopians, religious or not, also take tremendous pride in the fact that theirs is the only African nation that was never colonized.

Axum is an interesting site; in addition to the church, there are a number of 1700-year-old large stone stelae that seem difficult if not impossible to erect without modern heavy equipment. Locals merely say they were raised by angels. During the Italian occupation of World War II, one was looted and taken to Rome. Part of the Italian's agreement at the end of the war was to return it to Ethiopia, but it stood in Rome for another 56 years, as if to thumb the Italians' nose at the Ethiopians.

The 1960 Olympics were held in Rome and the marathon course went by this obelisk. As you may know, the first-ever African Olympic champion, Ethiopian footsoldier Abebe Bikila, was crowned in this race. The headlines were cute; many referenced the fact that it took an entire Italian army to defeat Ethiopia but one single Ethiopian soldier to defeat Rome. The IOC had no problem with people making this statement since it didn't stir up much in the way of politics; Bud Greenspan's Olympic films use the story.

The race, however, was not so nice. Greenspan's films left out a hugely important feature, one the IOC wouldn't have liked to be sent around the world. Where did Bikila take the lead in the race? Precisely at the obelisk itself, a patently political and religious action understood by the thousands of Ethiopians who listened to the race on the radio or who read about it in the news. Bikila became such a popular figure that Emperor Haile Selassie was reportedly in fear of him, and when Bikila suffered his catastrophic car crash a (false) rumor circulated that the Emperor arranged to have him done in.

Now you know why an Ethiopian religious holiday deserves mention on a track & field blog.

1 comment:

BitterTrackGuy said...

Dude, that is just outstanding work. Excellent post, one of your best ever.