The sheer hypocrisy of the Worknesh Degefa flag controversy

Tuesday January 31st 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

The Dubai Marathon. Tens of thousands of athletes, onlookers, organisers and volunteers take over the city as some of the world’s finest long distance runners jet in to battle it out for the biggest portion of the nearly one million dollars in prize money up for grabs. While analysts may be marveling in Ethiopia’s dominance of the event and comparing the finishing times with those of other seasonal race winners, an incident involving the winner of this year’s women’s event has sparked a political back and forth clashes that have riveted across Ethiopia’s social media sphere. Worknesh Degefa may have gotten more attention than she bargained for, despite her aiming to blow the field and finish atop the podium.

Since the Dubai Marathon was first held in 2000, Ethiopian athletes have collected 24 of the 36 gold medals in both male and female competition. Among the twenty four gold medals, three of them belong to one Haile Gebreselassie, who crossed the finish line first in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 events. In recent years though, the event has seen Ethiopian runners put an absolute stranglehold on the top positions, with the majority of the top ten placed finishers in both male and female races being Ethiopians. At the 2015 event, the first twelve runners to finish the race were all Ethiopians! The likes of Lemi Berhanu and Feyisa Lelisa streamed comfortably across the finish line with nobody but compatriots in view. Looking at the results you’d be forgiven for mistaking them to be of the annual Addis Ababa Great Marathon. But no, Dubai has been the final hurdle in the rags to riches stories of many an Ethiopian runner. Dubai has become the setting for an annual coronation ceremony that immerses soft spoken Ethiopians often from the rural countryside, immediately into the pomp and lavish existence that is the big life.

2015 results.jpg
Final results of the male’s race at the 2015 version of the event, the total domination of the competition is evident!

Because of the country’s consistent dominance in Dubai, there tends to be a huge turnout of Ethiopian support. Members of the sizeable community there show up draped in flags, wearing Ethiopian sporting jerseys, faces painted in Ethiopian colours. They decorate the streets with their colourful, illuminating, vociferous presence. Ethiopia’s various political entities are also quite visible. Ethiopian flags of varying political eras, as well as those of dissenting groups are easy to spot out among the swarm of cheering, chanting members of the East African country’s massive fan contingent. The Dubai Marathon has become an Ethiopian festival, to say the least.

Ethiopian fans at the 2015 Dubai Marathon (Image: AP)


Massive show of Ethiopian support at the 2017 Dubai Marathon

2017 wouldn’t be any different. In last weekend’s races, Rio Olympic bronze medalist Tesfaye Tola won the men’s race and broke the course record. A lesser known name, Worknesh Degefa, won the women’s race. It came two months after she won the 2016 Delhi Half Marathon and she continued her rise in Dubai. Both runners pocketed a cool 200,000 US$.

After registering a 2:22:36 time and sailing to victory, Worknesh first embraced her fellow athletes Shure Demise and Yebrgual Melese who finished second and third respectively. She then ran in the direction of the stands where the bulk of the Ethiopian fans were seated.

“GURO WOSHEBAYE!” The crowd broke into this victory chant as they celebrated their hero’s feat. Worknesh revelled in the limelight. Smiling and posing for photos, she waved at fans obviously enjoying the moment. And why not? It was a standing ovation hard earned standing ovation. Months spent training for the big day culminated in her winning a blistering 42 kilometer distance race. She has earned her stardom as well.

2017 Dubai Marathon winners Tesfaye Tola and Worknesh Degefa pose for pictures together

What followed, earned her a short lived period of social media infamy. Someone from the crowd tossed an Ethiopian flag in her direction. Worknesh picked it up and waved the approximately three by two feet sized flag which was adorned with the constitutional star. Worknesh raised the state sanctioned flag of Ethiopia to the skies and kissed it twice.

A couple of meters over, someone had tossed her another Ethiopian flag. This one was a giant and had no star on it, emblazoned with the colours and nothing else. This flag is often associated with opponents of the current government and has been referred to as a “resistance” flag. She stooped over and picked it up, waved it once which got roars of approval. A glance at the new flag she had just picked up, she immediately lowered it and placed it back on the ground where she had found it. All the while she remained clutching the official flag that she had originally picked up.

Screengrabs of the incident

The reaction on social media was swift. Those who hold the plain flag dear to them vilified her for “throwing the real Ethiopian flag on the ground.” Footage of the act was circulated widely and she was subject to insults and taunts online. Others, including government supporters praised her for honouring the official flag and refusing to carry with her a flag they feel doesn’t represent Ethiopia. The online bickering, a normality of Ethiopian Facebook threads, further exposed the deep political divide on the topic of the Ethiopian flag.

While international media lauded Worknesh Degefa as a top athlete and up and coming world beater, a firestorm had ignited over the post race incident. Condemned as an immoral flag burning sellout by some, she was feted as a politically correct national hero by others. Foreign media didn’t even realize the connotations of what was being broadcasted. The American EverSport TV commentator just continued his conversation uninterrupted with Jos Hermens over the injury that forced Kenenisa Bekele to drop out midway through the race. In front of the world, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Right now a Facebook search of “Worknesh Degefa” yields posts praising her athletic performance, while a Facebook search of her name written in the Ethiopian Geez font “ወርቅነሽ ደገፋ” results in a horde of politically themed Amharic language postings all centered around her highly debated moment with the flag.

Was Worknesh Degefa acting according to her political affiliations? Was she affirming her opposition to the ideals of the plain green yellow red flag? Or was she simply terrified that being seen with that flag would have had dire consequences on her back home in Ethiopia? The country is currently under a government declared state of emergency and the exhibiting of perceived symbols of “resistance” such as the plain flag, is prohibited. The answers to these questions are more or less irrelevant. Focusing on the bigger picture, the online “war” highlighted a lack of respect for the basic principles of democracy by nearly everyone on both sides of the debate.

Screenshot from a Wikipedia article exhibiting Ethiopian flags, past and present

First of all, which flag is the real Ethiopian flag? The answer to that question is subjective. There is no clear cut answer as many Ethiopians, depending on their political affiliation will tell you that one and only one flag is the authentic flag and all others are to be discarded. When it comes to the topic of the Ethiopian flag, Ethiopians can be openly intolerant and downright hostile to the idea that there is more than “one” unofficially accepted Ethiopian flag.

There has been no known consensus or surveys made in an effort to gauge people’s feelings towards what the national flag or emblem(s) of Ethiopia should be. There are those who are adamant that Ethiopian flags from the previous era are too closely associated with the Imperial era and thus are out of date and can no longer function as the state flag. But critics argue that the current flag was adopted without prior consultation of the Ethiopian people and is nothing more than a crest for the current tyrannical regime. Then there are Ethiopians, mostly descended from the many traditionally oppressed ethnic groups who scoff at the idea of any national flag representing them, preferring instead to be seen waving flags representing specific ethnic groups or political movements. Walking in on a discussion about the Ethiopian national flag will have you come within earshot of a host of extremely polarizing opinions vested in a core set of values zealously defended by no nonsense adherents.

Most of the popular Ethiopian national and regional flags were on display at the Dubai Marathon, further highlighting the diverse opinions on an extremely touchy subject. But among the flag bearers in the crowd, there were no reported scuffles or anything of the sort. Why? Because Ethiopians are accustomed to this difference in opinion and most are aware that not everyone abides by the same ideology. The fact that those present were able to forego their political differences and unite as one in an attempt to spur their national heroes onwards to victory, testifies of many things. It testifies that unlike what we see online, there are Ethiopians who do cater to the virtues of tolerance and coexistence. It also exhibits a willingness to honour the basics of democracy. One’s flag, one’s emblem isn’t necessarily the flag/emblem of the person sitting behind him/her. But that person’s choice shouldn’t be an excuse to prevent someone else from having a great time at a fantastic venue in Dubai. As long as we are all cheering for the good guys, we can look past our differences…-ish.

Ethiopian government supporters honouring Worknesh Degefa for choosing the “right” flag are hypocritical in their arguments. The “right” flag has been implemented as the only acceptable national banner, while leaving no room in the public for those who don’t believe it is the case. Long before the October 2016 declaring of a national state of emergency, the public exhibition of previous national flags was always a federal offense. This of course, is the one of many discrepancies between the basics of democracies and the “democracy” being practiced by a regime which has made a name for itself with its ruthless intolerance of dissent. Those lauding her decision to immediately drop the plain flag to the ground claim she rejected the artificial flag for the authentic one. A video of the incident was shared on the Facebook page of the Ethiopian government Federal Communications Affairs office, celebrating her decision. Their stance is authoritarian in nature. Instead of accepting the widely known fact that the other flag is a treasured icon of a significant number of Ethiopians, they prefer to spite their compatriots by demeaning the flag, defaming it and declaring it “void,” offending millions in the process and rejecting an Ethiopian’s democratic right to select that flag as his/her own.


Meanwhile, a major section of the cyber lynch mob is lambasting Worknesh Degefa for her selecting to wave one flag and not the other. These are also people who refuse to believe Ethiopians should have the right to make their own decisions. They argue that the act of hurling a flag to the ground is disrespectful and offensive. This is true. But honestly speaking, had Worknesh Degefa hurled the star adorned official flag to the ground in favour of waving the plain green yellow and red flag, how many of the boo boys would be singing her praises and celebrating the same act? Quite a lot of them, without a doubt. For the most part, the cyber attacks against her are fueled over the belief that one flag is superior to the other. The desecration of the state flag is permitted, but not that of what they consider to be the “real” flag of Ethiopia. This also massively defiles anything and everything related to democracy.

So is Worknesh Degefa without fault?

It’s hard to say. In the spirit of tolerance and coexistence, all flags have a deep cultural and historical essence about them that it would be only wise to be respectful towards them. One could have simply walked past the flag, throwing or dropping a flag to the ground is a completely unnecessary act. Then again, Worknesh may have made a spur of the moment decision out of fear that she would attract unnecessary attention from the head honchos in power back home. It appears that she only realized that the flag wasn’t the official state flag after she had picked it up. If that is the case, she’ll surely remember to look carefully next time! It’s highly doubtful that she was using the platform to make a highly polarizing political statement.

Unbeknownst to her, Worknesh Degefa exposed the depths of the cultural intolerance many Ethiopians have. And unbeknownst to the masses of social media users who spent the weekend praising/demonizing her, they have made it clear that the tenets of their partisanship excuses their disavowing the pillars of democracy and all round decency. Very few were heard denouncing an act for the sake of its being offensive to people.

I’ll bring up the question one more time. For those who felt so strongly about her actions that they had to unleash an emotional tirade against her or in her defense: would you have felt the same had the incident played out with the flags reversed? Had the flag with the star been the one left on the ground, would you still be expressing the same feelings of outrage? Vindication?

The jury is in. The answer for most of you, is no.

Worknesh Degefa after winning the 2015 Prague Half Marathon (Image: Running Network)



Meanwhile, Worknesh Degefa, 200,000$ richer, has remained tight-lipped on the whole affair. She continues what many pundits believe will be a prodigal rise to global sporting prominence.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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