Winner in the last lap

Trying to interview Miruts Yifter is almost as hard as keeping up with him on the track. The little Ethiopian with the big finishing kick is just as adept at evading reporters and their questions as he is at polishing off his rivals with those amazing last-lap sprints.

For a week while he was winning the Olympic 5,000- and 10,000-meters events, journalists vainly attempted to pin him down. What is his true age? (He admits to 36, but some think he looks older). What are his training methods? how does he account for that inexplicable reservoir of energy? What about his future plans? But after it was all over, they didn't know much more about him than they had at the beginning.

Thanks to being with some Ethiopian journalists at the right moment, however, I caught up with the man of the hour in the Olympic village just a short time before he won his second gold medal. He wouldn't tell me some of his "secrets" either, but he did have a few things to say.

"I have had many victories, but the 10,000 was the best so far," he said of the race in which he had finally conquered two-time defending champion Lasse Viren."Of course I will win the 5,000 too."

Confidence is one attribute Miruts has never lacked. A good example of this was his reaction at the Montreal Olympics, when he was the favorite in both events but was forced to the sidelines by the African boycott.

"For sure I would have won both races," he said, speaking in his native Amharic to the journalists who served as my interpreters. But when I asked if that had been the saddest moment of his career he replied: "I wasn't too disappointed, because I knew I could still do it in 1980."

Then he went out in the 5,000 and made good his words, becoming the only double winner in track and field at the Moscow games and firmly cementing his place as one of the all-time great distance runners.

Yifter, who at 5 ft. 4 in. and 116 pounds is dwarfed by most of his younger, more athletic-looking rivals, is married and the father of five boys and one girl, ranging in age from one to 11.

Miruts didn't get into running seriously until well into his 20s, though like most of the 30 million inhabitants of his homeland he was forced to always be in good condition.

"In our country everyone walks long distances to work -- sometimes an hour or more each way," one of my journalist-interpreters explained.

So the conditioning was there -- and then along came Abebe Bikila to put Ethiopia on the athletic map in 1960-64 as the first man ever to win successive Olympic marathons. Bikila became a national hero, then Mamo Wolde kept the streak going by winning the race in 1968 and finishing third in 1972.

"Miruts saw us when we were preparing for the 1968 Olympics," said Wolde, who was an official guest here. "He started training, and before too long he was running with us."

Yifter joined the Air Force (he is a lieuten ant), where he got the opportunity to develop his talent. He was still virtually unknown outside his own country, though, when he burst upon the international scene in 1971 by outkicking Frank Shorter to win the 10,000 in a meet at Durham, N.C.

At Munich he won the bronze medal in an amazingly close 10,000, finishing less than three seconds behind Viren, but he missed the start of the 5,000 when he got disoriented trying to make his way onto the field in the huge stadium. Then four years later came the even greater frustration at Montreal.

Undaunted even though the calendar seemed to be against him, Yifter hung in there. He won the 5,000 and 10,000 in the inaugural World Cup meet in Dusseldorf in 1977, repeated that double at the second one in Montreal in 1979 also won both races at the Spartakiad games here that same summer, and in fact was undefeated at those distances for the entire between-Olympics period. But his triumphs lacked one element: Viren, the double winner at both Munich and Montreal, had gone into his usual hibernation since '76 and had not competed in any of these events.

So to the public, at least, he still had something to prove when they toed the mark at the start of the 10,000. The race was close, with the lead changing repeatedly, but then with about 300 meters to go Yifter unleashed his patented kick and sprinted away from the field with ridiculous ease.

It was a dazzling performance, but a much less publicized occurence the next day also gives some insight into what makes this wiry little man so successful. The occasion was the first heat of the 5,000 -- an easy qualifying run for Yifter even though he had to do it with no rest day. When Kunze Hansjorg of East Germany passed him a few yards before the finish, there was absolutely no reason for Yifter to exert himself. It made no difference whether he finished first, second, or even fourt. But something inside this great athlete doesn't like to lose, and with a furious burst he charged forward to nip his foe at the finish.

By the time of the final (his fifth grueling race in nine days), he had thoroughly captivated the fans who filled Lenin Central Stadium. The crowd cheered him all the way as once again he hung close to the leaders until midway through the last lap, then sprinted clear for another decisive victory. (Viren was not among his victims this time, having elected instead to try the marathon, which he did not finish).

So now it is Yifter who is the sports hero of his nation and the iron man of the Olympics.

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