I Chose to Run in the Race for Life
I WAS born in a small town in Eritrea, Africa, in 1947. When my mother died two years later, I was entrusted to the care of my grandfather, a priest of the Orthodox Church.
As I grew older, religion became my principal interest. I, too, desired to become a priest. So grandfather placed me in a school to prepare me.
Often I prayed to God to help me to reach my goal of becoming a priest. I asked for a sign to indicate that my prayers were heard. When I did not receive any, I became disappointed. In time I came to feel that God did not exist.
So in 1960 I decided to leave school. After four days of traveling on foot, I arrived at home. You can imagine my grandfather’s reaction. However, I remained firm in my decision not to continue my studies for the priesthood. My attention turned elsewhere.
Career as a Cyclist
I found work as a bicycle mechanic. This led to an interest in cycling. Could I become a champion cyclist? This became my desire. Yet I could not even enter a race, because I did not have a bicycle, nor did I have enough money to buy one. So I determined to build one myself.
With the bicycle built with my own hands, I entered my first race. I did not win. However, I did so well that the trainers of a squad of cyclists who saw me presented me with a bicycle so that I might enter the next race on the program. Shortly afterward I took part in a race at Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and won.
For four years I raced in Eritrea, benefiting from the help of an Italian trainer. I went on from one victory to another, winning a total of forty cups and ten medals. It was at this time that they began calling me “Giant,” partly because of my stature and partly for my victories. I was known by this nickname more so than by my real name.
My reputation became known abroad, and I was invited to take part in bicycle races in Italy, Spain, France, Yugoslavia, Germany and Mexico. I won many of them. In Italy alone I won thirty cups and twenty medals.
Although I had become one of the fastest cyclists in the world, something was wrong. I did not feel satisfied or happy. Something had changed in me. I was losing interest in sports. I had begun to appreciate that there was something much more important than bicycle racing.
Then the opportunity that I had awaited for years finally arrived—the Pan African games, a kind of African Olympics. They were scheduled for January 1973 in Lagos, Nigeria. It had been my cherished dream to participate in such high-level international competition. But, strange as it may seem, now I did not really want to go.
However, the Ethiopian government sent me ten telegrams inviting me to represent Ethiopia in the games. Finally I decided to go, but I was determined to quit sports after these games were over. I was very successful in the competition, winning two gold medals, one in a regular bicycle race between individual contestants, and the other in a timed race. But then I made clear my determination to quit racing altogether.
The news of my quitting quickly reached the then emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. On hearing it, he summoned me to appear before him as soon as I returned from Lagos late in January. Our conversation lasted about half an hour. He tried to convince me to continue racing so as to maintain high the name of Ethiopia. He promised me land and riches. He also offered me the opportunity to become a trainer of cyclists. I refused.
What, you may wonder, had influenced my decision? Why had I lost my consuming interest in cycling?
A More Important Race
It is because I had come to appreciate that another kind of race is more satisfying and rewarding than bicycle competition. When I left my studies for the priesthood back in 1960, a relative in Asmara first spoke to me about the Bible promises of a new system of righteousness of God’s making. (2 Pet. 3:13) At the time this information did not particularly impress me, since at school I had become disappointed with religion. Besides, by then I was deeply interested in bicycle racing.
However, about ten years later I accepted an invitation to study the Bible with one of Jehovah’s witnesses in Ethiopia. I also began attending some of their Christian meetings. Later, when I traveled to Italy to participate in bicycle races, I contacted a congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses. Thus I continued my meeting attendance and Bible study, this time with ever-increasing interest.
I became impressed by the fact that Almighty God really does purpose to create a new system, and that He is now preparing a people who will survive to enjoy its blessings when He brings this old world to an end. (1 John 2:17) I began to see the importance of living for that new system now, making it my goal in life and telling others about it. Since I was deeply involved in racing, these words of the Christian apostle Paul at 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 particularly impressed me:
“Do you not know that the runners in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may attain it. Moreover, every man taking part in a contest exercises self-control in all things. Now they, of course, do it that they may get a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible one. Therefore, the way I am running is not uncertainly . . . that, after I have preached to others, I myself should not become disapproved somehow.”
In a certain sense I saw myself described by these words of Paul. But I was in the wrong race! I had been racing for a prize of little value—worldly fame and riches. Now I realized that it was possible to run the Christian race for the prize of eternal life.
Thus, when the Pan African games were over, I began sharing publicly in preaching to others regarding God’s purpose to usher in a new system of righteousness. I remember the exact date when I began to preach; it was February 1, 1973, about fifteen days after my two victories in the Pan African games.
What joy I find now in using my physical strength—not in racing for some fading, corruptible prize—but in running in the race for the prize of eternal life that Jehovah God will give to all those who continue loving him. (Jas. 1:12)—Contributed.