It was a pivotal moment in the history of distance running, and I missed it.
I missed it because I was too busy being in college to pay attention to the 1980 Olympics, and because even if I had been paying attention, there was no live coverage of the Games in Moscow… NBC had canceled its domestic coverage in response to the U.S.-led boycott.
So I didn’t see the distance races. I didn’t see Steve Ovett and Seb Coe win golds in the 1500 and 800, respectively, each of the two legends winning the race he was expected to lose and losing the race he was expected to win. I didn’t see Waldemar Cierpinski, later implicated in the vast East German Doping program, defend his Olympic marathon title
And I didn’t see Miruts Yifter win the 10,000 with a devastating acceleration from 300m out. The move was so sudden that it was as if one moment there were five world-class athletes in contention (three Ethiopians and two Finns, among them the two-time double Olympic gold medalist Lasse Viren), and the next moment, there was one champion and four also-rans.
Watching the video one can see that as the race develops, Viren is repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to take the lead and control pace, a strategy that had served him so well in Munich and Montreal. Instead, every time he reaches the front, Ethiopia’s Mohamed Kedir surges back into the lead only to slow the pace again. On the final lap approaching the back straight, Viren makes a last, desperate bid for the front, making it as far as the right shoulder of Kedir. And that’s the moment when Miruts Yifter shifted to another gear, and made Kedir, Viren, and all the rest look like the junior varsity.
Perhaps no one in the United States was paying attention, but in Ethiopia, a seven-year-old boy named Haile Gebrselassie was listening to the race on the radio. A few days later he listened again, as Yifter added the 5000m gold medal. This week, following Yifter’s death on December 22nd at the approximate age of 72 (no one was ever sure how old he was), Gebrselassie was quoted by the Associated Press, saying “Miruts has been everything to me and my athletics career. When I started running, I just wanted to be like him. He is the reason for who I am now and for what I have achieved.”
Yifter had first competed in the Olympics in 1972, winning the bronze medal in the 10,000m behind Viren’s gold. But he missed the start of the 5000m in Munich, so we will never know how he might have run in that famous race with Viren, Gammoudi, Stewart, Prefontaine, and Puttemans.
The defending bronze medalist was denied a chance to run in Montreal because Ethiopia, along with many African nations, boycotted the 1976 Olympic Games. (Kenya would boycott in 1976 and 1980, and Ethiopia would join the Russian and Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Games. It’s strange to think that after 1972, it would be 16 long years before both Kenya and Ethiopia competed in the same games, and one wonders how much that set back the progress of distance running in those countries.) But in Moscow, Yifter finally broke through, completing the 10K/5K double, running three qualifying races and two finals in 9 days.
Now we take Ethiopian distance prowess for granted. Gebrselassie, and later Kenenisa Bekele continued Yifter’s legacy, winning four straight Olympic 10,000 titles, but have been and are so many other world-class Ethiopian distance runners — men and women — that it seems strange, indeed, to think of a time when they weren’t already on top of the world.
I wish I had seen and appreciated Yifter in his prime. At least, I wish I had been more familiar with his accomplishments in those boycott-plagued years of the late 70s and early 80s. But for me, and probably for many of my contemporaries who never actually watched him race, he was just a name. “Yifter the shifter,” the press liked to call him — not a very dignified nickname for a great champion, a small man of uncertain age and a receding hairline, who had the habit of making all the other great runners of his generation look mortal by comparison.