Ethiopia’s ‘Robel the Whale’ Booed Back Home

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Ethiopia’s Olympic swimmer, Robel Kiros Habte, is getting lots of love and hate on social media after splashing his way through the 100-meter freestyle heats in Rio.


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.

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