By Barney Cullum, Sports Writer, Tokyo, August 11, 2021
(BBC News) — Triple Tokyo Games medallist Sifan Hassan says the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia are “destroying the country” and has called for a power-sharing settlement to prevent more of its runners fleeing to compete for other nations.
She won gold for the Netherlands in the 5,000m and 10,000m in Tokyo as well as a bronze in the 1500m after leaving Ethiopia as a refugee 14 years ago.
The 28-year-old hails from the Oromia region, where there have long been demands for greater autonomy and where there is a growing insurgency involving groups fighting for its “liberation”.
Her 10,000m victory was secured ahead of world record holder Letesenbet Gidey, who comes from Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, the epicentre of a civil war which erupted in November.
Hassan told BBC Sport Africa that is was heart wrenching to see what has been happening in Oromia where people were dying.
“I don’t regret that I got out from that country and I don’t even want to go back again. It’s so painful. It hurts me when I think about it, it’s terrible.”
Hassan has said she enjoyed a happy childhood until 2007 when fighting broke out in Oromia.
All three podium places for the 10,000m were filled by runners born in Ethiopia, with Bahrain’s silver medallist Kalkidan Gezahegne previously winning the world indoor 1500m title representing her place of birth.
However Letesenbet was the only athlete still competing for Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, which is Africa’s second most-populous state, has a history of ethnic tensions. The runner blamed this for the country losing so many promising athletes.
“I remember before, the youth loved each other, now they hate each other. And they used to call themselves Ethiopian, now I am sure many Tigrayans don’t call themselves Ethiopian,” she added.
When Letesenbet took Hassan’s two-day-old 10,000m world record in in June, local fans flooded to World Athletics’ social media posts to say the new benchmark had been set by a Tigrayan, not an Ethiopian.
Earlier this month, the UN said urgent humanitarian needs were being reported in Oromia while some four million people in Tigray were in need of emergency assistance.
“It’s just terrible,” Hassan continued. “Letesenbet is an amazing athlete. Where she comes from, there are young children being raped.
“Can you believe how many women, they are maybe like me with a dream, and they get raped?”
Hassan said that the sight of three Ethiopian-born runners winning medals in the 10,000m was unlikely to bring communities together, so entrenched were the desires for more autonomy.
Critics of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is an Oromo – the country’s largest ethnic group, suspect him of wanting to centralise power with the reforms he has brought in since coming to office in 2018.
“If I was him, I would back off,” Hassan advises.
“I would give power, tell the people to choose what they want.”