Farewell of the Athletic Giant
Miruts Yifter, 5000 and 10000m double winner at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is a legendary persona in the long distance running. He was the only Ethiopian who won double gold medals until Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele did a similar victory in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Miruts is best known by his nickname “Yifter the Shifter” for his devastating finishing speed.
The athletic giant, aged 72, passed away on December 22, 2016 in Toronto, Canada, where he lived for over 15 years. In a well attended funeral, his body finally rested at St. Trinity Cathedral Church in Addis Ababa. EBR’s adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with the athlete’s running mate, families and members of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation to prepare his obituary.
If the path to greatness is rough, the journey Miruts Yifter passed through has been rougher. Miruts who passed away recently was a low paid employee in a factory. He became a national pride through his hard work and perseverance. He was also dubbed as a traitor by the government and was even detained for months. The athlete many easily identify in Addis Ababa with his ‘0001’ plate numbered Peugeot car also became a pedestrian suddenly.
For some, Miruts is a man who lived a mysterious life. Until recently, he was not reachable even to the media. With that, he left everyone to speculate on his baffling stories. Though he tried to answer some of these questions later, his birth place, age and actual reason why he missed the 5,000 meter race in 1972, Munich Olympics and what caused his exile have been reported with inconsistent facts. This was partly because he shies away the media. In fact, a large number of youngsters in the country do not even know how great he used to be. A large number of Ethiopians didn’t have the chance to see him running as well. Others heard about him because he is the one who inspired Ethiopian athletics great persona – Haile Gebresilassie.
But, how great was he? “You cannot question [that],” says Tolosa Qotu, Miruts’ running mate in the two Olympics. “He was outstanding!”
Miruts’ athletics career started in 1968 when he was working in a factory. When the national team was preparing in Asmara for the Mexico 1968 Summer Olympics, a 1.67m young man approached Nigussie Roba, then athletics team coach. Miruts didn’t just told him that he wants to be a runner. He just shocked Nigussie saying “I want to compete in Mexico.”
Though Nigussie immediately considered him for the national team, his Olympic career begun four years later in the 1972 Munich Games where he won bronze in 10,000 meter, and missed the 5,000 race after his coaches failed to bring him to the running venue.
Tolosa remembers what really happened in Munich. “I was there,” he says. When Miruts was told to warm-up for the 5,000 meter trial in Group four, Tolosa who was listed in Group Three was already on the track. “The coaches came to the venue leaving Miruts there. The audio announcer was reminding the group four runners to show up, but Miruts could not come,” Tolosa recalls. There were reports asserting that Miruts later went to the doorway only to be prevented by the securities because he had to be accompanied by his coach. By the time his coach came to take him to the stadium, it was already too-late the race had already started.
When the team returned home, his bronze medal did not get him praise. In fact he was accused of treason against his homeland by intentionally skipping the race. He was sent to the detention center at Air Force compound located in Bishouftu (Debre Zeit).
While Miruts was in prison, Tolosa was called at Maekelawi, the notorious police investigation and detention center in Addis Ababa, to testify. He told the police officers that Miruts had nothing to do with the issue. He spoke about the athlete’s enthusiasm to participate in the race. “It was the coaches’ fault,” says Tolosa. “One of the two (Nigussie Roba and the then assistant Woldemeskel Kostre (PhD)) should have stayed with him.” When interviewed about it by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) correspondent in 2004, Miruts recalled the story with tears hovering in his eyes. “They said I had deliberately skipped the race and threw me into jail.”
Passionate as he was for athletics, Miruts kept training hard while he was in the prison. Even when some prison officers order him to work out very tough exercises as punishment; he annoy s them often for performing the toughest ones. Sometimes the enrage officers beat him for that.
A year later he was allowed to run at All African Games in Lagos, Nigeria. He came back with gold in 10,000 meter and silver in 5,000 meter. Upon return, Miruts kept exercising very hard to participate in the Montreal Olympic Games. Unfortunately after three years of preparations, the primed Miruts and the strong Ethiopian team that went to Montreal were told to return home. This was because Ethiopia joined 24 other African countries to boycott the 1976 Games protesting the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s refusal to ban New Zealand, whose rugby team was touring Apartheid South Africa, a banned IOC member for their racist sport regime, at that time.
“It was very unfortunate,” says Tolosa. “The Montreal Olympics came in the prime of our running career.”
Prepared for a double race, Miruts was at his best performance. That’s why a year later, he won 5,000 and 10,000 meters doubles in IAAF World Cup 1977, Düsseldorf, Germany. He did the same in 1979. That made his participation in Moscow 1980 highly expected. As anticipated, he won the 5,000 and 10,000 meter double gold medals with his astonishing fast finishing performance which resulted in coining his luminary nickname “Yifter the shifter”.
“He brought back the Africans dominance in the distance. Everyone knows his tactics. He takes off with 300 meters to go. You cannot catch him in the last lap. He switches the gear. Once he is gone… he is just [unreachable],” recalls Tolosa.
Given his long years of patience to achieve a remarkable Olympic victory, Miruts was so delighted at Moscow. “I’m happy! The journey I had to take to win these medals was very long and tough,” Miruts said in the Moscow Olympic Games press room.
As he started athletics late and waited for long years to victory in Olympic Games, Miruts’ athletic career was challenged after Moscow.
As time goes, his happiness started fading. He ended up with no job and no income. Those who knew him closely remember how heartbroken Miruts was.
Miruts had a strong desire to be a coach but got the chance to serve in that capacity only for a brief time. “He was begging officials at the then athletics federation to be given a chance to work even as a scout to recruit fresh athletic talents in rural Ethiopia. He used to say ‘there are several Miruts’s [waiting for opportunities],” said Solomon Miruts, the third of the athlete’s seven children.
However, his role in athletics coaching did not last long. Being without a job, Miruts used to feel dejected. He then left for Canada where he lived for more than 15 years. While in Toronto, Miruts had to evacuate his house located around Olympia in Addis Ababa. He was awarded the house for his heroic achievements. “We were told to build ground plus home or leave the plot for others [developers]. [Miruts] came from Canada to challenge that [decision of the city authorities]. But he could not [do anything about it],” says Solomon in interview with local FM radio recently.
“When I start to think about what I did to my beloved country and what I have got in return, I feel angry,” Miruts said in an interview with Dereje Haile, an Ethiopian radio host a long time ago. “But I am happy; at least I am in a good health condition.”
As time goes, finally he got sick. He was admitted to Bridgepoint Health Care, Toronto Metropolitan, after he suffered from a severe respiratory problem. A commoncold he acquired from a visitor further worsened his conditions. He passed away on December 22, 2016.
“The Miruts I know was the one who comes home with medals. This time, we have to take the defeated him. I was not prepared for this,” said his second son, Beniam Miruts, 40, a day after his dad’s funeral. Unhappy about the small media coverage about his dad and the whole athletics sport, Beniam was thankful for the government and others who honored and took part in paying tribute to the legend.
Gezahegn Abera, the Sydney Olympic marathon gold medalist in 2000, believes Miruts did not live the life he deserved. “Athletes of his generation run for the national flag. They did not make money. My wife (Elfenesh Almu) was his trainee, and she always tells me about his paternal style of approach. I am sad that he left us now. But his accomplishments will live with us forever.”
Haile, the new president of Ethiopian Athletics Federation seems proud of the way they said good bye to the man who inspired him. “Had it not been for what he did in Moscow, I wouldn’t have become the Haile you know today. Miruts has been the reason and my inspiration. He inspired thousands of athletes. I wish we have learned from his downside, as well.” EBR
5th Year • January 16 2017 – February 15 2017 • No. 47