15 May 2007 - The Ethiopian runner Miruts Yifter was a double Olympic champion at the 1980 Games in Moscow. But his career was marked by pitfalls, and the man has kept his secrets. In theory, he is celebrating his 63rd birthday today, but his real date of birth is a total mystery. Let’s have a closer look at this enigmatic athlete.
“Yifter the shifter”
What exactly does this nickname refer to? In fact, to his amazing ability to break clear of the pack just 300 metres before the finish line.
This end-of-race acceleration enabled him to win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in Moscow, and earned him the nickname “Yifter the shifter”. What tenacity is displayed by finding the energy to break clear after 13 minutes of running in the 5,000 and 27 minutes in the 10,000 metres.
The only Ethiopian medallist at these Games, he became a star in his country; but things were not always like that.
In 1972, at the Olympic Games in Munich, Yifter won the bronze medal in the 10,000 metres. But, upon returning to his country, he was accused of failing at the Games and betraying his homeland. He was put in prison. But this did not prevent him from continuing to train, or from winning gold in the 10,000 metres and silver in the 5,000 metres a year later at the All-Africa Games in Lagos, Nigeria.
Three years after that, he could not compete in the Games in Montreal, following the boycott by most African countries in protest at New Zealand being allowed to take part. He therefore had to wait eight years before standing on the top step of the Olympic podium.
Even now, nobody knows why Yifter failed to turn up for the start of the 5,000 metres final at the 1972 Games in Munich. Another mystery.
Ethiopia, cradle of long distance running
In a country known for its harsh living conditions, Miruts Yifter is one of the famous Ethiopian distance runners who have turned the necessity of covering long distances each day into a globally recognised sporting achievement: Abebe Bikila, the legendary barefoot runner, gold medallist and Olympic record beater in the marathon at the 1960 Games in Rome and the 1964 Games in Tokyo; and another marathon runner, Mamo Wolde, Olympic champion at the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
But also Haile Gebrselassie, 10,000 metres champion and record holder in Atlanta and gold medallist again in Sydney, who, it is said, began his career after hearing about Yifter’s success on the radio.
Kenenisa Bekele, the current 5,000 and 10,000 metres world champion and holder of the Olympic 10,000 metres record, was also coached by Yifter.
Or Millon Wolde and Gezahgne Abera, gold medallists in the 5,000 metres and the marathon respectively at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Mysterious but talented
His age is a secret and his place of birth uncertain, but one thing is sure: Yifter deserved all the medals he won, demonstrating the tenacity, endurance and inner strength which have enabled him to overcome the hurdles of his life’s journey.
The Ageless Distance Star
Miruts Yifter's quest for an Olympic gold medal was a frustrating 8-year saga with a happy ending. In 1972 Yifter finished third at 10,000m, but didn't make it to the starting line of his 5,000m heat. The reason for his failure to appear remains a mystery with explanations ranging from the political to becoming lost in the hallways of the stadium. He was unable to participate at the 1976 Olympics because his nation boycotted. Four years later in Moscow, Yifter made up for his disappointments. In the final of the 10,000m he sprinted into the lead 300m from the finish and won by ten meters. Five days later, in the 5,000m final, Yifter was boxed in during the last lap. But with 300m to go, his Ethiopian teammate, Mohammed Kedir, stepped aside and Yifter again sprinted to victory. Part of the mystery surrounding Miruts Yifter was the question of his age, which was reported to be between 33 and 42. Yifter refused to give a definitive answer, telling reporters, "Men may steal my chickens; men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age."