Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aug 11 – 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.