'Robel the Whale' booed in Ethiopia

Robel Kiros Habte of Ethiopia competing in the 100m freestyle heats on Tuesday, where he ranked 59th out of 59 competitors.
Robel Kiros Habte of Ethiopia competing in the 100m freestyle heats on Tuesday, where he ranked 59th out of 59 competitors.PHOTO: REUTERS

ADDIS ABABA • Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte has won hearts in Rio but faced a vitriolic reaction at home yesterday due to accusations that nepotism is the only reason he is at the Olympics.

The 24-year-old, the 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 1min 4.95sec - half a lap behind anyone else.

Between the rippling abs of the world's finest swimmers, 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 Ethiopia were apoplectic with rage that he 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 carried the country's flag during the Olympic opening ceremony on Aug 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.

Rio was Habte's first competitive international swim. He had struck a defiant tone following his failed bid for Olympic glory.

"I don't know why I was slower today but it didn't matter where I finished," he said.

His father Kiros Habte also defended his son: "We didn't want results. We just wanted to participate. That's all."

Internet users soon called for the swimming chief to be sacked.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline ''Robel the Whale' booed in Ethiopia'. Print Edition | Subscribe