ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte has won hearts in Rio but faced a vitriolic reaction at home Thursday due to accusations that nepotism is the only reason he is at the Olympics.
The 24-year-old son of the country’s swimming boss ranked 59th out of 59 competitors in the men’s 100m freestyle heats on Tuesday, posting a time of 1:04.95 — half a lap behind anyone else.
Between the rippling abs of the world’s finest swimmers, 24-year-old Habte’s generously rounded stomach quite literally stuck out, soon earning him the affectionate nickname of “Robel the Whale” on social media.
But internet users in Ethopia which regularly produces first-class athletics champions were apoplectic with rage that Robel had been selected.
“Robel is symbol of racism, favouritism, incompetence that we’re currently fighting,” tweeted Addis Ababa resident Lina T, referring to a wave of anti-government protests currently engulfing the country.
Habte even took the honour of carrying the flag during the Olympic opening ceremony on August 5, a symbol of patriotic pride that Ethiopians were outraged was not given to the world-class runners walking alongside him.
“It’s OK to come last in any competition, somebody has to right? It’s NOT OK to embarrass a nation by entering a competition with no competence whatsoever,” Seble T posted on Facebook.
The Rio heats were Habte’s first competitive international tournament. Ethiopia is landlocked and has no Olympic-sized swimming pool, meaning swimming is not a traditionally strong sport there.
“Sad that we have so many Robels in the system and it’s about time to realise that is why people are so angry and frustrated,” Seble T added.
Habte had struck a defiant tone following his failed bid for Olympic glory, potentially adding to the internet firestorm.
“I don’t know why I was slower today but it didn’t matter where I finished,” he told journalists in Rio.
His father Kiros Habte also defended his son when contacted on state-owned radio station Fana, saying: “We didn’t want results. We just wanted to participate. That’s all.”
Users soon called for the swimming chief to be sacked following his comments.
“If I were the authorities, I would fire the father, NOW. Even before he gets back to Addis. They need to make a statement on this,” Facebook user Naby B posted.
The Ethiopian athletics federation, which produces the country’s strongest Olympic contingent, has also faced accusations of incompetence.
Triple Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion Kenenisa Bekele was told to stay at home in favour of younger and less experienced runners.