Many observers of Eritrean cycling attribute the extraordinary development of its culture to Asmara’s altitude, its mountainous circuits and dry climate, which helped Eritrean cyclists to develop endurance, and to the Eritreans’ lean physiology.
It is true that these factors helped Eritrean cyclists be successful in the game but do not explain why the people fell in love with the game. True, again, that the success of the cyclists may have drawn the people into the game for success breeds its own followers. However, the source of this culture has its roots in the collective Eritrean response to racism and oppression during colonial times. These commentators, however, forget that
Eritrean attitudes to colonial domination and their reactions to their oppressors, which cycling helped to express, played a considerable part.
A comment from an Eritrean source (this time a book on the history of football during colonial times) may help clarify this point. In Kuuso Egri Eritrea ab Gizie Teketatali Megzaetawi Siratat 1936-1975 (literally, Eritrean Soccer during Successive Colonial Regimes 1936-1975), Teklit Lijam shows how Eritreans formed their own football clubs in response to Italian racism. In late 1936, the Italian authorities allowed the Eritreans to form their own soccer clubs. “Therefore, the Eritreans that were not allowed [to watch the Italians play from within the football pitch] in the camps but only watched the games from a distance, began to work speedily to form their own clubs. Most of the soccer players were employed and salaried people and, therefore, it didn’t take them long to form their clubs. They didn’t have any problem buying balls, socks, and jerseys, and shorts because the items were not expensive” (p. 3).
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Eritreans were sometimes allowed and sometimes barred from participating in the cycling competitions organized by their Italian colonizers. The Italian decision to bar them from cycling competitions was most probably motivated by their racial laws, which prohibited Eritreans equal legal status with the Italians, and was an extension of such racist practices to sport. For example, Eritreans were not allowed to study in the same schools as the Italians. Neither were they permitted to join Italian teams. Due to such restrictions, the Eritreans reacted and showed Italian authorities that they were not second-rate human beings, and that they could compete against their oppressors on equal basis. In other words, they used cycling to make a political point as they challenged racist Italian attitudes. In short, cycling competitions were not contested only in the spirit of sport for sport’s sake.
Eritrean cycling had it turning point in 1946 when some Eritrean cyclists went with their request to the officials of the Italian Cycling Federation to reconsider a decision the Federation had made, which forbade Eritrean cyclists from participating in the Giro di Eritreo. The Federation was forced to reconsider its decision, after British authorities intervened, allowing two Eritrean cyclists (Weldemichael Asghedom and Gherezgiher Weldetatios) to take part. But the Italian cyclists registered to compete in the game did not find the reconsideration to their liking because all the games were arranged out of the city, a situation that gave the Eritreans an advantage because their strength lied in their performances in mountainous terrain. Fessehazion Zerazion, a cyclist of the time says: “Italian cyclists warned if the two [Eritrean] cyclists were not barred they would pull out of the tour. Therefore, Berbere and Gherezgiher were barred from participating.”
The Eritrean cyclists, among them Berbere, found the Italian Federation’s decision so unacceptable and went and complained to Brigadier General Kennedy Cook, the then Administrator of Eritrea, about the injustice of barring them from the tour. They requested that the discrimination they bore due to their colour should stop, and that they be allowed to compete on equal basis against Italian cyclists. Brigadier Cook called the Secretary of the Italian Cycling Federation in Eritrea, Signor Clanchy, and informed him that colour discrimination between blacks and whites were no longer applicable and that no cycling contests that do not accommodate Eritreans should be organized. For the first time, 11 Eritrean cyclists were allowed to compete along with Italian cyclists. Eritrean spectators came out en masse to show their support for their compatriots, two of whom beat their Italian competitors in a race organized in what is now the Fish Market, opposite the Zoba Maekel Administration Office. “It was a great joy for the people of Eritrea because it was the first Eritrean victory in a game reserved for Italian athletes only,” Haddas Eritrea comments. “For this reason, 1948 was a symbol of the end of racial discrimination for the Eritreans, but for the Italians, it was a time of incomprehensible events [as the Tigrigna proverb has it]. The most amazing thing is Fessehazion Zerazion, Berbere’s big fan, himself a cyclist, recalls the then Governor of Asmara, an English man, another Berbere fan, invited him [to his office] and introduced himself to the Eritrean cyclist.”
By the 1950s and 1960s, the British and the Italians had departed but Eritreans faced another kind of discrimination, one that tried to undermine their aspirations for independence. The Eritreans competed under the Ethiopian flag, and participated as the only black cyclists in the 1964 and the 1968 Olympics. It should be recalled that the Eritreans helped the Ethiopian National Soccer Team win the Third Africa Cup of Nations trophy in Cairo in 1962, and the Eritreans’ feelings (about their skills) must have accompanied such an achievement, as they formed a majority of the Ethiopian squad. In 1964, the Ethiopian cycling squad was wholly composed of Eritrean cyclists, which says volumes about Eritrean cycling capacity of the time. All in all, 19 Eritrean cyclists participated in Olympic Games between the Melbourne (in 1956) and the Munich Olympics (in 1972), a rare achievement by itself.
Assessing the role of sport in cultivating national pride, the Ethiopian authorities employed underhanded tactics and tried to undermine sport activities in Eritrea as part of the effort to kill Eritrean people’s aspirations for self-determination. Teklit Lijam reports of one such an encounter in which Eritrean journalists asked for clarification from Yidnkeachew Teseema, the then (in 1968) Head of Ethiopian Sports Confederation. Through his answers, Yidnkeachew Teseema tried to absolve himself of the guilt of partiality. Mr. Lijam comments: “However, the relationship among Eritrean and Ethiopian teams was not based on the teams’ superiority or its lack but was a political relationship. Many Ethiopians (politicians, football federation officials, referees, etc) entertained an attitude of superiority-complex that Eritrea can never defeat Ethiopia [in any football matches] whatever the situation the clubs played in. Eritrean clubs were unjustly treated for a long time and such treatment was taken as acceptable. Some referees (for example, Ayele Tessema) had such political beliefs and were ready to treat Eritrean teams unfairly. St. George [Football Team] represented the superiority complex the ruling Amhara displayed and, therefore, enjoyed support from different quarters. This means that if they failed to win the matches due to lack of skills, they would do so through the decision of the whistle.” (p. 301).
One theme Teklit Lijam’s book raises is the injustice Eritrean sportsmen received at the hands of their successive colonizers. The feeling was pervasive and shared by Eritrean fans of different games in different periods. Cycling fans could not have experienced other things for they experienced the same kind of unfairness in the cycling circuits as soccer fans saw in the soccer pitches.
As a young cycling fan, I often watched the intense cycling competitions between the cyclists from Hararghie, Showa (two Eritrean provinces), and Eritrea in the 1980s. The other Ethiopian provinces did not participate in these cycling contests among Ethiopian riders, as they probably had no cyclists that could compete against the riders from the three provinces. After all, it was athletics, not cycling, that had the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people, especially after Ethiopian athletes’ spectacular success in the marathon. For this reason, the best Ethiopian cyclists of the 1980s (outside Eritrea) came from the other two provinces, and Addis Ababa. Influenced by the armed struggle that continued against Ethiopian occupation, Eritrean cyclists competed as if the game were an extension of the armed conflict. And the Eritrean spectators perceived these contests as such. In short, often, these races had political dimensions as far as the Eritrean riders and spectators were concerned. And I don’t think this dimension was lost on the Ethiopian authorities, sportspeople, which they tried to use to their political advantages.
After independence, cycling has not lost its popularity and has drawn even more fans, which is undoubtedly attracted by the victories of such Eritrean cyclists as Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane and the young cyclists who are swelling the ranks of successful Eritrean cyclists each year. The only game that is competing for more popularity is athletics, which has gained a lot of approval from the public due to the victories of Zeresenai Taddesse and Ghirmai Ghebreselassie.