I began my research in summer 2009 with the aim of learning more about long-distance running and its historical development. However, the more I ventured into the history of sports in Ethiopia, the more it became obvious that running is only one of numerous athletic practices. I soon decided to bring this wealth of different sports to centre stage. For too long, the powerful global sports media complex has narrowed our perception of Ethiopian sports to the successful long-distance runners. Yet simply leafing through the sports pages of the Ethiopian Herald of the 1990s, I discovered a whole range of successful athletes in boxing, table tennis, and basketball as well as the formulation of a sports-for-all policy.
Going back to the 1980s brought my attention to a predecessor of this mass sports policy, the Spartakiade, modelled after such tournaments in socialist countries, as well as the systematic training of athletes and coaches in places such as Havana, Bratislava, Kiev, and Warsaw. At the Deutsche Hochschule für Körperkultur und Sport (German University for Sports and Physical Culture, DHfK) in Leipzig (German Democratic Republic), Ethiopian sports officials were trained to systematically identify sporting talent through the Spartakiade system. Beyond the identification of talent, the competitions and related programmes served to instil ideas about the ‘fit citizen’ into the minds of the athletes and, I would argue, society as a whole. However, citizenship training through sports was not particularly socialist, but an integral part of discourses and practices that served to mould the modern subject in very different social and geographical contexts: Western, colonial, post-colonial, working class, and bourgeois, to name but a few. I decided to go further back into twentieth-century history – into what I call the ‘late imperial period’ (c. 1920s–70s).
In this book, I look at the well-researched period under Ras Tafari, after his coronation Ats’ē Haile Selassie I, when existing reform processes in administration, education, and the military gained momentum. These changes, which responded to global developments, went hand in hand with early ideas about what a modern subject could mean in the Ethiopian context. From the perspective of sports, I inquire into the role of new athletic practices in its various forms, i.e. as leisure, as marker of a modern lifestyle, as propaganda tool, or as a way to mould youth into ‘torchbearers of progress’.