Ethiopia's Miruts Yifter running in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (© Getty images)
Twenty four years have elapsed since Ethiopian Miruts Yifter won an historic 5000 and 10,000m double at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but the legend recalls everything as if it happened only yesterday.
"I was determined to run the four best races of my life (two semi-finals and two finals)," he says. "I prayed that if I tried and succeeded in doing something brave in Moscow, I would gladly give my life for it."
Thrown into prison after Munich
In Moscow, Yifter was a man on a mission out to prove to the world what sort of a talent he possessed. Eight years earlier, he had managed only bronze in the 1972 Munich 10,000m race, and did not compete in his 5000m specialty thanks largely to confusion with his team coaches.
"My coaches [Mr. Nigussie Roba and the-then assistant Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre] took me to the mixed zone to warm-up and left me there," he painfully recalls. "But then, they arrived late and by the time they took me to the race marshals, the race had already begun."
However, when Yifter returned to Ethiopia after the Games, he was dubbed as a traitor and was thrown straight to prison instead of receiving plaudits for his Bronze. "They said that I had deliberately failed to compete and threw me into jail," a tearful Yifter recalls. "They thought that they had taken my love for running, but they were wrong.”
Yifter's determination knew no bounds. He continued his training in prison with the prison guards’ help hoping that he would be released in time to compete for Ethiopia in the All-African Games in Lagos, Nigeria a year later. His wishes were granted after three months and he joined up with his Ethiopian teammates in Lagos, where he took the 10,000m gold.
Buoyed by his success in West Africa, Yifter hastened his preparations for the Montreal Games in 1976, but after assuring himself qualification for both distances and travelling to the Canadian city, Yifter was left wandering what might have been, as the country joined the African boycott of the Games.
"We returned twenty-four hours before the 10,000m semifinals," he says. "On the day we returned from the Games, we had gone out for an early-morning training session with my teammates before the officials and coaches summoned us up and told us to pack our bags. We did it for South Africa, who was fighting against Apartheid. That at least lessened the pain."
Undeterred, Yifter continued training on his own even after the team was disbanded by the sports commission. He wanted to be ready when his chance came four years later, but he would be 40 by then and no match for the young field. Or would he?
Proving the point that he was not finished, in 1977 and 1979 he took impressive 5000/10,000m doubles for Africa in the IAAF World Cup competitions.
"I told journalists who saw me to count my enthusiasm, not my age," he laughs. "I told them you need an Ethiopian motivation to win races."
The moment finally came in Moscow
In 1980, with the world looking on, Yifter finally delivered the ultimate tactical blow that saw off his challengers in Moscow.
"We talked about it with the coaches and I practiced taking off with 300m to go in both the 5000 and 10,000m races," he recalls. "300m is the ideal mark - not too late, not too early. I listened to the movements of my opponents until five laps remained and then decided on my course of action. The tension start building at the bell, but before they could reassert themselves, I make my move."
Yifter on Viren – “he is a great athlete and I still admire him”
His tactics gave him the nickname "Yifter the Shifter" after he modified the pace of the race with 300m remaining - a trademark that transformed distance running. His achievements in the capital of the former Soviet Union were all the more astonishing given that he saw off the challenge from Finland’s quadruple Olympic champion Lasse Viren, a man who had proved insurmountable during the 1970's.
"He is a great athlete and I still admire him," Yifter says of Viren. "He is a very wise tactical runner, but on that day, he could not take what I had in my legs."
A double that continues to inspire
Yifter's triumph continues to be remembered by people around the world, not only on the scale of the performance on the athletics side, but also for its humanitarian aspect.
"People still find it surprising that a 40-year old man would run and win against people, some who were at least ten years younger," Yifter proudly recounts. "Some say that I took steriods, but that is pure nonsense."
Gebrselassie ran by example
Back in Ethiopia, Yifter's legacy has inspired many to take up running seriously including former quadruple World and reigning double Olympic 10,000m champion, Haile Gebrselassie, who was inspired to start running after hearing a radio commentary of Yifter's achievements in Moscow.
Mixed fortunes since Moscow
Outside athletics, Yifter's life has received mixed fortunes since then. While the plaudits continue to pour in from around the world and he is a highly recognised figure wherever he goes, Yifter now lives in Ottawa, Canada after defecting from Ethiopia six years ago. In Ottawa, he is the coach of the Athletics team at the New York University. "I have a good life there, but nothing will ever be like my country," says a patriotic Yifter.
Inspiring the current Ethiopian team
This summer (it is winter time in Ethiopia), Yifter has returned to his country to be amongst his beloved people for the first time in six years and as the Ethiopian team prepares to make its mark on the 28th Olympic Games in Athens, Yifter believes that this could be Ethiopia's most successful outing at the Games.
"There are many potential medal winners in this team," he says. "It was not like this during my time and I am happy to be alive to know that I have also helped inspire the current generation of runners."
“Bekele reminds me of myself”
In particular, Yifter is keenly watching the development and prospects of World 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele. "He reminds me of myself when I was a runner," he says. "Strong, confident, and ready to take on anyone and any challenge placed in front of him."
Early in the week, Yifter visited the team's training base at the Ararat Hotel in the outskirts of Addis Ababa where he met Bekele and other members of the team. "They greeted me with tears of joy in their eyes," he says. "They told me that they admired me and I am so proud of them all."
Yifter's visit included private moments with Bekele, the man who will be running both 5000 and 10,000m races in Athens, where he passed on his own experience of running the double.
"I told him to be determined and strong and remember that he has the hearts of 70 million people back home in his legs," Yifter confirmed.
A distance running legend
In his own right, Yifter goes down in the history books as one of the legends of distance running, but the 64-year old now believes that his unique achievement will not last August.
"I strongly believe that Kenenisa [Bekele] will win both races in Athens," he says. "Look at his achievements so far. He has been consistent and going strong for the last two years and I believe that there is no one who can seriously stop him.”
”He has faith in his own hands. What he needs is Ethiopian determination, the same will power that has kept the nation out of the reach of colonialists more than seventy years ago. That is the drive I had, the same drive Haile [Gebrselassie] had, and that is the same drive he needs. I believe that he has got it in him and will use it in Athens."
Bekele’s second double track campaign
It will be the second track double that Bekele will be attempting in his career after winning 10,000m gold and 5000m bronze in the 9th IAAF World Championships in Paris last year. "He got his tactics wrong in the 5000m race," Yifter recalls. "But I think he is smarter this time around to plan his move better and that is why I think he will win the double in Athens."
Coaching career beckons for the legend
Yifter will move back to Ethiopia full-time at the end of the month, but at 64, he still feels obliged to contribute to his country. "I want to coach young athletes here in Ethiopia," he says of his future plans. "I want to pass on my experience and be useful again for the country."
For the next twenty days at least, Yifter, like all other Ethiopians around the world, will be on the look out for Ethiopian performances in Athens and hopefully merrymaking after any victory.
"With each gold medal, I will add a year to my life," said Yifter bursting into laughter!
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF