Long-distance runner Mohamed Kemal explains to NPR how his Oromo ethnicity has allegedly made him a target of discrimination.
Despite the Oromo people comprising nearly 50 percent of Ethiopia’s population, they have been the target of discrimination in many facets of life—from education to employment to land seizures and arrests. Tensions reached a boiling last November when the country’s largest ethnic group took to the streets to protest their mistreatment led by the ruling party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
It’s against this backdrop of the Oromo protests that NPR reports that 23-year-old Mohamed Kemal, who is Oromo, alleges he has been discriminated against ahead of the 2016 summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Ethiopia also announced its national team will be minus its three-time Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele, which means the country could cede victories in the five and 10K contests to Kenya (both countries usually win medals in these middle-distance races). Some have considered Bekele’s exclusion as another example of the Oromo people’s systematic marginalization.
Kemal tells NPR that before a half marathon in 2014 where he finished 86th—placing him in Ethiopia’s top 100 runners for that year—one of the coaches of his running club suggested fixing the race.
“We have been told to make others too tired, but, at the finishing, to give the chance for the Tigrinya,” the Ethiopian runner explains through an interpreter.
Unable to stomach that his Oromo ethnicity means paying bribes and missing out on international sponsorships, Kemal refused to throw the race. The coach was furious, and threatened to ban Kemal from future contention.
Once the Oromo protests erupted, Kemal found himself among the thousands arrested. After his release from jail, he fled to neighboring Kenya, giving up his promising running career.
Kemal’s exile makes watching this summer’s Olympic games complicated. On one hand, he wishes to root for friends and familiar faces from home. But on the other, doing so, means validating what he suggests is Ethiopia’s corrupt running program.
Have a listen to NPR’s story about Oromo Ethiopian long-distance runner Mohamed Kemal below.