LONDON (Reuters) - Miruts Yifter startled his opponents before confusing the statisticians with his 5,000-10,000 double at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The Ethiopian shot to victory in both races with an unstoppable late surge over the final 200 meters.
Afterwards reporters tried to pin down his age, variously given as 33, 35, 37 or 42.
“I don’t count the years,” Yifter replied. “Men may steal my chickens, men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age.”
Looking much as he did in Moscow, however old he might really be, Yifter now helps to train the new generation of Ethiopian distance runners, heirs to a golden tradition which began when Abebe Bikila ran barefoot through the streets of Rome to win the 1960 Olympic marathon.
He was also one of the coaches of the cross-country team who won all four individual golds for the first time at the world championships in Edinburgh this year.
“That’s in our blood, in our culture,” Yifter said in an interview with Reuters as the team took a break in the northern city of Leeds before returning home. “We expect more, we are never really satisfied.”
Bikila, a member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Bodyguard, retained his title at the 1964 Tokyo Games, this time wearing shoes. Mamo Wolde won gold again for Ethiopia in the 1968 Mexico City Games.
Yifter won a bronze medal in the 10,000 four years later in Munich, but missed the start of his 5,000 heat. He was not able to run at the 1976 Montreal Games after Ethiopia joined the African boycott in protest at a New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa in the same year.
Ethiopia’s Olympic progress stalled in the 1980s when they boycotted the 1984 and 1988 Games. They returned in style at the 1992 Barcelona Games, where Derartu Tulu became the first black African woman to win an Olympic title and inspired a new generation of women runners with victory in the 10,000.
Haile Gebrselassie, now the world marathon record holder, won consecutive 10,000 victories at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Games, where Tulu repeated her 1992 triumph. He was succeeded as world record holder and Olympic champion by the light-footed Kenenisa Bekele, the greatest male cross-country runner ever.
Bekele can earn money Yifter could not have envisioned in the days when his sport was still amateur. But, Yifter said, the basic pride in the achievements of a country which has been racked by war, famine and poverty, remains the same.
“Your country is your country. When we used to run, we ran for our flag,” he said through translator Dawit Mengistu, an Ethiopian doctor based in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield.
“Now when they run they can earn quite a lot.”
The elite athletes are supported by members of the Ethiopian diaspora throughout the world. Last month expatriate Ethiopians drove from Portland and Seattle to Eugene, Oregon, to watch and support Bekele and Olympic women’s 5,000 champion Meseret Defar.
“Wherever you go, you find Ethiopians and Ethiopians have a feeling for their own country, wherever you go you are in Ethiopia, will find supporters. Wherever we are, we have the same heart,” Yifter added.
Bekele will defend his 10,000 title at the Beijing Olympics and will decide after the race whether to try to emulate Yifter by doubling up.
Gebrselassie, 35, has returned to the 10,000 this year after opting out of the Beijing marathon because of concerns over the long-term effects of the heat, humidity and pollution.
He clocked 26 minutes 51.20 seconds behind Olympic silver medalist Sileshi Sihine in Hengelo, Netherlands, in May and must now wait to see if he will be selected for Beijing.
“From our point of view there is no concern whether it is polluted or not,” Yifter said. “We are ready to perform. We don’t have any problems. Even if it is hell, we don’t have any problems.”
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Yohannes in New York)
Editing by Clare Fallon