martes, 21 de febrero de 2012

Black Stand for Civil Rights at Mexico Olympics

Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympic Games podium
               Talking about athletic performances, Mexico 1968 Olympic Games rank among the very best in history. The world record was broken in no less than 15 specialties, including up to five times by three different athletes at the triple Jump. Interestingly, all but two of those records were set at sprint and horizontal jump events, helped by the altitude and ideal atmospheric conditions. The most remembered moment of the Games was the superhuman flight of Bob Beamon, but also Jim Hines ran for the first time ever under 10sec and Lee Evans and Larry James under 44sec. Evans’ record stood for 20 years and the one recorded by him and his mates of the male 4x400 relay even longer than Beamon’s 8.90. Elsewhere, Al Oerter accomplished his fourth consecutive title at the discus, Dick Fosbury changed the high jump event forever with the introduction of his revolutionary style and Kenya made a stunning breakthrough at the Olympics, winning three gold medals in distance running. Not bad for a single week but the Games of the XIX Olympiad were also remarkable for some controversial gestures at the medal podium by some African American athletes. An Olympic performer is a human being first and this is what Tommie Smith and John Carlos tried to show up with their memorable stand for civil rights at the 200m medal ceremony.  
               1968 had been arguably the saddest year in the 20th Century, outside of the World Wars, and a pessimistic one talking about mankind hopes for a better future. Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated as Malcolm X and President John Kennedy were sooner in the decade. Tet offensive and My Lai civil massacre had increased domestic opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War, while Soviet Union tanks had suffocated Czechoslovakia’s uprising in the spring. Inside the black continent, South Africa and Rhodesia governments continued with their strong racist policies and apartheid. On the other hand disgruntled students led to the largest general strike ever in Paris. Also in Mexico City, just 10 days before the Olympics, a student demonstration had been violently reprimanded by the army, causing hundred of deaths. IOC president Avery Brundage did not see the necessity to cancel the Games but in the United States black athletes had been talking openly for months about boycott.  

                San Jose State University in California was the hot centre of that polemical debate. In that campus were studying some of the foremost track and field sprinters of the country: Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Ronnie Ray Smith, John Carlos… under probably the best speed coach of the time, Lloyd “Bud” Winter, described by his charges as a a humanitarian in both his training methods and general behaviour. Both Smith and Evans parents had been sharecroppers in Texas and Louisiana respectively and migrated to California trying to escape segregation and poverty. Tommie claimed both future Olympic champions had already met as children, cutting grapes in the fields from dawn to sunset, which was precisely the way they became such tough runners. (1) John Carlos came from different background: he was from Cuban origin and had been a kid struggling in Harlem. Then he moved to East Texas State University but disappointed with the racist atmosphere left after his freshman year, to switch to California. Passionate and outgoing,  the eternal spokesperson, John Carlos temperament fitted with Malcolm X, whom he had met in New York, while Tommie Smith, rather reserved, was more a Dr King follower. (2) On the other hand, Evans stated African athletes, when he was in London for a competition, had made him become aware of the black struggle in racist South Africa. These politico-social concerns of the trio would be canalised by a young sociology teacher called Harry Edwards, a big influence in their future commitment. 

John Carlos and Tommie Smith take a break in pre-Olympic days in San Jose
Photo: Jeff Kroot 
                Edwards founded the OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights), an association created in a rather spontaneous way, when San Jose black students gathered around him to complain about such things as their troubles to find accommodation near campus, because of the colour of their skin. (1) Seemingly the only black men admitted in that college were the ones with sportive skills and even then efforts were not done to supply them with the necessary conditions for their normal integration into the student community. A scholarship did not mean much and there were the times of amateurism so black athletes needed to earn some money through some small jobs. Thus Tommie Smith, who was the record holder at 11 different events, had to wash cars in his spare time. Black athletes were used to win gold medals for the nation at the Olympic Games and, after that ephemeral moment of glory, Cinderella got back home to keep cleaning floors and be treated like scum again. "For years we have carried the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever. It is time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilised as performing animals for a little extra dog food." said Harry Edwards to the New York Times. “We are not a show horse doing a performance, so if we do a good job we get paid some peanuts,” stated John Carlos at Mexico Olympics press conference. (3)
The OHPR articulated this kind of issues, as one of the very first student black associations around the civil rights plight. They communicated to the authorities their decision of boycotting the Games unless they accomplished 10 demands, among them to keep the ban to South Africa and Rhodesia for the Olympic Games, to remove IOC president Avery Brundage, to engage more black coaches and officials (in Mexico Olympic Games there was only one black assistant coach and one member inside the IOC, Jesse Owens) and to reinstate Muhammad Ali. The boxer had been suspended and stripped of his world title after his refusal to go to Vietnam. (1) Ali was punished because he was considered a threat: he was a symbol for all the black community for his sportive prowess, his independence, his affinity with Malcolm X and his angry words against the establishment. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger. No, I am not going 10.000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.” (4) Martin Luther King was one of the personalities that manifested his support to the OPHR boycott. He had an interview with John Carlos ten days before his death.

Nevertheless, only 1/3 of the Black American athletes were for the boycott. Some believed an Olympic victory would allow them to escape thereafter racism. Eventually it was decided to compete but the athletes talked about making a stand for human rights in case they reached the podium. Death threat letters abounded and some of the runners like Tommie Smith expected from one moment to another to be shot on the track. (2) There was an unspeakable atmosphere inside US team and at the same time the will to prove something to the world: “They transformed fear, loss and rage into performance.” (5) Jim Hines was the first of the African American athletes to win a gold medal. On the podium he respected the protocol except for one small detail: he refused to shake Avery Brundage's hand as the IOC president awarded him the medal. Brundage had been quoted in previous weeks saying black athletes had to be lucky of being allowed in America and on the Olympic team. In the beginning, the idea of carrying black gloves to the medal presentation ceremony was precisely related to the moment they had to face the IOC president: “Let us get some black gloves and stick them in our pants and before Avery Brundage shakes our hand, we will put the black glove on and wait until he has a heart attack.” (1) Anyway, after his experience with Hines, Brundage let other dignitaries do the medal-awarding job. A rather bemused Lord Burghley, the Marquis of Essex, was the close witness of the famous and infamous Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ civil rights statement, when they bowed their heads and thrust their black-gloved fists in the air as the Star-Spangled Banner anthem started.

Ron Freeman, Lee Evans and Larry James at the 400m Olympic podium in Mexico
In The US 200 meter medallists’ protest demonstration there was a sort of transgressive elements, each one carrying is own symbologie. (6) Tommie Smith’s glove represented power and John Carlo’s unity, five fingers which can remove together a solid rock and can also lift a mountain if there is a whole nation united on the same aim. (7) Tommie wore a black scarf which meant black pride, while John had a necklace with beads to recall every individual lynched, killed without a prayer or thrown off the boats in the journey to slavery. (8) Carlos uniform was also unzipped in homage to blue collar workers, to the underdogs. Finally, both runners were carrying OPHR badges and came to the ceremony barefooted, showing up black socks. That was to remember all the misery surrounding black lives. “We have kids that do not have shoes even today. They can send a space ship to the moon, or send a probe to Mars, yet they cannot give shoes? They cannot give health care? I am just not naive enough to accept that.” (8) Often Carlos and Smith’s salute has seen as a black power stand but the latter said it was more accurate to describe it as a demonstration asking for civil rights and not only black people ones. Also women, who fought actively for their rights in the next decade, could have perfectly been involved. For him it was not a violent  gesture of hate as some stated but of frustration, because he loved his country and wanted it to do better. (2) John Carlos has often been quoted too as beginning his protest in the actual race, where he said he did not give his best and allow Smith to win just to let down white expectations from his country on his "show horse" performance.
            The other man on the podium, white Australian Peter Norman, agreed to participate in the stand. He asked for an OPHR badge, which he borrowed from Olympic white American rower, Paul Hoffman. Norman also suggested the idea of splitting Tommie Smith’s gloves, after Carlos had left behind his in his room. The silver medallist, educated in the principles of the Salvation Army disliked the white-only politics back in his own country, where Aborigines were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1962 and were not counted in the national census until 1967.   He was also aware of the situation of the black community in the country of freedom. "I could not see why a black man was not allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy. That was just social injustice that I could not do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it." (9) Norman alludes to the famous episode of activist Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger in 1955, as it was stipulated in the segregated law; an incident which brought to the Montgomery-bus boycott action led by Luther King.  Also to James Meredith, who won an appeal at the US Supreme Court in 1962 and thus was the first black citizen admitted to Mississippi University, which he had to reach escorted by the army and 500 Marshalls. White students and anti-desegregation supporters tried to avoid his enrolment in a violent riot, where about 200 members of the Security Forces finished up injured or wounded. In his stage in University, Meredith was often harassed and marginalised by other students but left school with a degree in political science.  

Larry Questad, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Lake Tahoe, venue of the 1968 Olympic trials
The US press did not seem to understand the true meaning of Smith, Carlos and Norman's stand. Or maybe it was too embarrassed or with little social sensibility. Time magazine changed the Olympic motto “citius, altius, fortius” to “angrier, nastier, uglier,” describing what happened in Mexico as "a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history.” (3) Associated Press talked about “a bizarre demonstration.” One of few voices of support from white America came from Robert Clark, the enlightened president of San Jose State, who praised them as "honourable young men dedicated to the cause of justice for the Black people in our society". (3) Avery Brundage did not like it much either. The IOC criticised Smith and Carlos for "advertising their domestic political views", which amounted to "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit". (3) Brundage was against mixing politics and Olympic Games and even tried more than once to ban medal tables and national anthems at the medal ceremonies. Yet it was not arguably the true reason of his anger. The US committee did not intend to take any special measure against the athletes but, after the IOC threatened with expelling the whole team from the Olympics, made an embarrassing public apology and gave Smith and Carlos 48 hours to pack their bags and leave the Olympic village.
              Jesse Owens was send by the IOC to try to convince the other US black athletes to “behave” during their next visits to the podium but Lee Evans and company shouted him out of the room saying Owens, living now the life of the Avery Brundages, had forgotten he had once suffered the same discrimination than them. "You know, wearing those long black socks is going to cut off the circulation in your legs." (1)  Lee Evans wanted to leave too but his San Jose State mates came to get him run his race. At the 400m, Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman swept the whole podium. They walked to the victory stand, aware of death threats against them. "We decided we would smile a lot and show our warmth," said Evans. "It is harder to shoot a guy who is smiling." (10) The trio was wearing black berets, showing their sympathy to the Black Panthers Party, uncovering their heads as the national anthem was heard in the stadium.  They wore that long black socks as also did long jumpers Bob Beamon and Ralph Boston. The latter came barefooted to receive his medal as Smith and Carlos had done before. Finally the girls who broke the world record a the 4x100m relay, Margaret Bailes, Barbara Ferrell, Mildrette Netter and Wyomia Tyus, dedicated publicly their victory to Tommie and John. None of them was punished. Besides the US African American athletes, Olympic champion in gymnastics Vera Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia protested against the invasion of her country, quietly turning her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem.  Back home she was banned from competition and international travel for many years.      

Avery Brundage had all that it takes to be named for the 20th century Hall of Shame. For the 1936 Olympiad he was the president of the United States Olympic Committee. Some personalities proposed to boycott the Berlin Games, because Jews were excluded in sport. Brundage went to Germany for an official investigation and concluded there was not any discrimination against Jews in the country. Tommie Smith and John Carlos “politic” demonstration had been unbearable but he never complained about Nazis salutes inside the Olympic stadium and the uncovered use of the Games by Hitler to promote his ideological belief of the Aryan race supremacy. Brundage was strongly against the mixing of politics and sport but he replaced in the last moment the only two Jews in the American team scheduled to compete. He never hid his sympathies for the Nazis and was removed for this reason from the American Olympic Committee in 1941. However he was not from the IOC and in 1951 was named its president, a post he would sadly keep for 20 years. Brundage was also against the presence of women at the Olympics beyond the ceremonial and decorative role. I am fed up to the ears with women as track and field competitors... her charms sink to something less than zero. As swimmers and divers, girls are [as] beautiful and adroit as they are ineffective and unpleasing on the track," he was quoted in 1936. (11) Besides a white race supremacist, he tried all his best to avoid the ban against two countries with such strong racist policies as South Africa and Rhodesia. When terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic village in Munich 1972, he did not see again any reason to stop the Games, on the other hand famously equating the massacre with the “politic blackmail” to ban Rhodesia as attacks on Olympic integrity. (11) Of course Brundage was a fervent stand bearer of Olympic amateurism; a hypocritical conception in which athletes could not make a living of their sportive talent, while others were cashing the money they generated. As colophon, his private life was so private, so an extramarital affair did not harm his reputation he never recognised his only two sons. Sport and especially soccer has proved an ideal substitute for religion as opium populi. It has been used for many years to divert crowd’s anger and frustration to less dangerous scenarios and also to awake patriotism. Meanwhile, Brundage tried to keep for two long decades an exacerbated puristic conception of the Olympics, a big hypocrisy, dissociated from reality and at the same time serving doubtful interests. Actually, one of the few times athletes were sanctioned for “breaking the Olympic spirit” took place when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a demonstration for human rights. I would rather listen to Carlos’ words. “Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world and not have something to say about injustice?” (8)  

Tommie Smith and John Carlos carry the coffee of old-fellow Olympian Peter Norman
Reality was quite tough for the three 200m Olympic medallists as they came back from Mexico. Tommie Smith’s agent broke their contract and he was sacked from his job washing cars and nobody dared to offer him any other. “Once we got back we were ostracised, even by our own. Folks were scared, man. No jobs. We could not find work. People even told us, 'We cannot get close to you guys because we have our own jobs to protect.' “ (3) Within two years his mother had passed away, his marriage was over and he was unemployed and broke. His mother died of a heart attack after receiving a mail with manure and dead rats in it. His brother in high school was kicked off the football team and his brother in Oregon had his scholarship taken away. John Carlos experienced a similar dramatic return home. “I came back 'John Carlos the neighbourhood bum'. I would soon have no money and I had to beg, borrow, steal and gamble to pay my rent. I remember chopping the furniture up for firewood and my wife looking at me as if I was crazy. But our heating was electric and I could not pay my electricity bill, so we had to take the kids to sleep by the fireplace." His wife left him, and in 1977 she took her own life. "I lost my first wife in this thing. But I will never be bitter toward anyone. Not for the criticisms or the death threats or anything. If I am bitter, they win.”(3) Peter Norman had just a little reprimand back in Australia and competed at the Commonwealth Games in 1970 but guess why he was not named for Munich Olympic Games, in spite of having the 5th mark in the seasonal lists. After that he retired from track and field. Norman’s marriage also failed, he drank heavily, his health deteriorated and also became a painkillers addict at the hospital. (12) In 2000 every past Olympian Australian legend was invited for a lap of honour on occasion of Sidney Olympic Games. Norman was not, no matter he is still the 200m national record holder with his 20.07 clocking from Mexico. However he was invited by US officials to join them in the stadium. Edwin Moses greeted the Australian at the door and Michael Johnson hugged him saying “you are my hero.”

Tommie Smith started to see the light as he moved to Ohio and someone eventually took the risk of employing him as a track and field coach at Oberlin College, where he became a sociology teacher too. Later he would be working in Santa Monica. John Carlos became also an athletic coach at Palm Springs High School and a guidance counsellor, serving mostly a Hispanic community. His public rehabilitation and Tommie’s began some years before as he was hired by the president of the organising committee of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Peter Ueberroth, as a special consultant on minority affairs. Who cared anymore about a stand at the Olympics when politics had brought to three consecutive massive boycotts? Mentalities were also changing. In 2004 a statue was erected in Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ alma mater San Jose State University to honour them. A young white student called Erik Grotz took the first steps on this initiative and also participated Alfonso de Alba, an immigrant who was born in Mexico City the 26th October 1968, the day of the famous civil rights stand. The same year Matt Norman, Peter nephew, directed a documentary called “Salute”, which for the first time brought the three medallists in a room to tell their story of that day in Mexico. In the last years, both Smith (2) and Carlos (13) have also published their autobiography. In 2008 both American athletes were given the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Two years before, Peter Norman, who remained a lifelong friend and was called by John Carlos “my brother”, died from a heart attack. His two companions at Mexico Olympics podium travelled to Australia to be pallbearers at his funeral. Also Lee Evans, who for more than 20 years rediscovered his roots helping Nigerian sprinters to make the way to the elite, is currently battling a brain tumour.    

 Tommie Smith and John Carlos consider themselves not as heroes but just as survivors and still keep the fire of their younger years and as a prove the latter was seen joining Occupy Wall Street, giving advice to the youth. They have a critical point of view about nowadays issues and the new generation. Both athletes made a sacrifice to fight for a better future for their children and they can be only half happy. Carlos says the black mistreatment in the South continues but now it has been “cosmetically disguised”. An African American has become the US president and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamaal has been at last removed from the death row, but capital punishment still stands in the country of freedom for many others. Black men incarceration has grown to up to 5 times in comparison to 20 years ago, making the 39% of the total of people in jail. Also 27% of the black population is considered to be living in poverty, nearly double the overall US rate. (13) The US keep invading foreign countries and applying the law of Talion instead of forgiveness. Winds of xenophobia are blowing strongly all over the world and the global economic crisis allows governments to set a dictatorship of the capital, impinging on the helpless citizen constitutional rights. Smith and Carlos also complain about the lack of social conscience in the new generation of sportspeople, who do clinics at Beverly Hills or Malibu, instead of in the hood they were born. (7)    Delegates from poor countries have joined the formerly elitist IOC and IAAF and these organisations have invested in developing the practise of sport in the third world as a vehicle of cultural and social progress.   Anyway, a country as Saudi Arabia has not been banned yet from the Olympic Games, in spite of strongly discriminating females in the practise of sport inside the country and it is not enough if they send a random girl to London to run the 100m. (14) We need new men and women with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s unbreakable spirit to keep the struggle on.   

Speed City legends back in 1968, including Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans
Photographer: Jeff Kroot 

jueves, 9 de febrero de 2012

My 10.000m Favourite Race (Men)

Mohamed Kedir leads Lasse Viren at the Moscow Olympics 10.000m final 
               At the start line of the Moscow Olympic male 10.000m there were two equally outstanding favourites but with rather different athletic résumé prior to the 1980 Games. Lasse Viren, the last of the flying Finns, had achieved the “double double”: he had become the first man in winning the 5000m and 10.000m titles in two consecutive Olympic Games, Munich and Montreal. After having won everything, Viren was still going strong and aimed in Moscow for a historic hat trick to round off his brilliant track and field career. On the other hand, the tiny Ethiopian Miruts Yifter, at 36 years of age or even older depending on the versions, was beyond question one of the finest distance runners of the past decade but he had not struck any major title yet. Yifter’s Olympic debut in Munich had been considered a failure in his home country. For the first time since the arrival of Abebe Bikila in 1960, the national team had returned empty handed to Addis Abeba… or almost. However, the bronze medals won by Mamo Wolde at the marathon and the same Yifter at the 10.000m did not fulfil the high expectations Ethiopia was used to. Besides, the inability of the latter to arrive in time for the start of the 5000m event was thought shameful. Actually, the athlete had been sent to the mix zone for warming up by his coaches Negussie and Kostre, and these ones came to look for him too late, when the race had already begun. Yet Yifter was treated like a traitor and sent for some months to jail. (1) Then the runner could not make any amends in Montreal, because of the African boycott so he was in front of his last chance for Olympic glory.

Miruts Yifter, Tolossa Kotu and Kaarlo Maaninka at Moscow Olympics

Historically, Finland had been the cradle of the most accomplished long distance runners in the world all over three decades. Hannes Kolehmainen, with his three Olympic victories in Stockholm in 1912, was the first of an illustrious lineage and he was followed up by the likes of Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Volmari Iso-Hollo, Ilmari Salminen and Taisto Maki, all of them multiple champions and record breakers. However, after World War II, track Olympic victories stopped for the country, which had thereafter the consolation of the medals at the field events, notably the javelin. After a long drought, in the 1970s we assisted to the renaissance of the long distance Finnish school, led by the great Lasse Viren. In this resurgence was crucial the visit of Arthur Lydiard to Finland in the end of the 60s. The legendary New Zealander coach came to the country invited by the national federation, in order to improve the Finnish athletes performance, and would stay for 19 fruitful months. At that time coaching in Finland was based exclusively in interval training with no avail. Lydiard proposed a different approach which was largely accepted by the new generation of coaches as Viren’s Rolf Haikkola. As a result, Finland recovered its place as the world powerhouse of distance running. Juha Vaatainen, a veteran athlete, considered the godfather of the new flying Finns, started the streak with his double victory at the European championships in 1971. Then Lasse Viren, Pekka Vasala, Pekka Paivarinta, Martti Vainio, Kaarlo Maaninka and steeplechaser Tapio Kantanen would be excellent standouts of a marvellous decade for Finnish track and field. 

Lasse Viren’s personality had been formed in the small village of Myrskyla, where he and four generations of his family before him were born. He enjoyed the quiet life among his neighbours, driving a truck with his father and working as a policeman in a place a murder was never reported, then go hunting moose and elks and running in his spare time. Lasse was a shy and reserved man but at the same time with a solid determination to seek his dreams. He would take strength from the natural and peaceful surroundings: the beautiful lakes, the evergreen forests and the snow-covered trails, where he liked to run through. (2)  Lasse would be able of enduring the toughest workouts, always with unlimited confidence in his endeavours, under Rolf Haikkola, also a native of Myrskyla. Lydiard’s concept of periodisation would be applied to a whole four-year Olympic cycle period. Viren did not care about records, and competitions on the track were set just as a way of working on his speed. Thus his performances were never nothing special out of the Olympics. Viren’s only target was to peak in Munich, then in Montreal, finally in Moscow, and with this purpose was set all Haikkola’s planning. Every year, Viren would skip the harsh Finnish winter and would go to altitude: Brasil, Colombia, Kenya, where he would log the miles. Then he would come back to Myrskyla for strength work and sharpening. Volume and intensity would be progressively increased as the Olympic year was getting closer. All the training would be done in a natural environment. Viren would hardly enter a track for his workouts, never a gym, though he highly appreciated the sauna their countrymen made build for him near home.   

                Hard work and focus paid off. Viren arrived to the Olympic dates of Munich and Montreal in impressive shape. This added to his tactical display and mental strength made him unreachable for any other athlete. In Munich, there was an unforgettable day for Finland, when in the lapse of one hour, Viren won the 5000m and his compatriot Pekka Vasala got the better of legendary Kenyan Kip Keino at the 1500m. Vasala had also followed a ferocious hill training regime and had gone to New Zealand to prepare the Games with the same Arthur Lydiard. After their Olympic success, accusations of blood doping were cast to the Finnish athletes, especially to the foremost of them, Lasse Viren. Maaninka, years afterwards would recognise he had blood-doped, which back then was not illegal. Viren would always deny these accusations. His personal doctor stated the four times Olympic champion already had a privileged heart, an optimal level of haemoglobin and besides was increasing this with his training in altitude. It would have been crazy to still thicken further blood with this kind of practises. (2) 

Kipchoge Keino leads Pekka Vasala at the 1500m at Munich Olympics 
              Miruts Yifter was an Amharic born in Adigrat, a populous town in Tigray region, the 15th May of an undetermined year, which the athlete kept in secret so his legend could remain timeless, or perhaps because there were no records of his birth and Yifter was not really sure. Therefore his famous saying: “men can steal my chickens, men can steal my sheep, but no man can steal my age.” Adigrat, a gateway to Eritrea and the Red Sea, was a place of strategical importance during the Italo-Abyssinian wars and it is also quite close to the capital of the legendary Kingdom of Axum. Their inhabitants as Mirus Yifter feel proud of that Ethiopian glorious past and how they defended their independence against foreign invasions though today’s reality is the daily struggle for survival in a harsh land. The same way Lasse Viren found an inner strength running through the snow-covered and wind-shaked green forest trails of his native Myrskyla, so did Yifter walking and running to and fro the arid mountains of Northern Ethiopia when he was a child. Miruts worked in several factories and as a carriage driver though his passion was running and Abebe Bikila his inspiration. With the further aim of competing internationally, the future champion joined the Air Force. In 1968 he was already in the national team but was not selected for Mexico Olympic Games. After his bittersweet experience in Munich he still kept the dream of an Olympic victory: Even being in prison he did not give up training, hoping to be fitted for the following year African Games. It was a long way until Miruts eventually could compete at the Olympics again, yet he had lost nothing of his running passion and none of his qualities as a sportsman. BBC commentator David Coleman baptised him “Yifter the shifter” after a sensational victory of the Ethiopian in 1977 with a blistering 54.6 last lap against Steve Ovett in a 5000m race in Gateshead, and in similar way he obtained his 5000m/10.000m “double double” at the 1977 and 1979 World Cup, beating easily Marty Liquory and Craig Virgin, among others. There has not been any other precedent of an athlete who has kept such explosiveness, such devastating kick, until such advanced age.    
Miruts Yifter, double Olympic champion in Moscow
           Half of the secret for this longevity is in Yifter’s talent, hope and determination. The other half is in the expertise of his coaches who knew how to treasure his star and keep him ready for the decisive outing of Moscow Olympic Games. Finland had an outstanding long distance tradition and the valuable assistance of Arthur Lydiard. Ethiopia had its own weapons and also excellent coaching. Interestingly, the East African nation had counted with the inestimable collaboration of the Scandinavian school in their earliest track and field manifestations.   Emperor Haile Selassie asked the help of Sweden in order to develop the different institutions and modernise the country and Onni Niskanen was the man chosen to take in charge the organisation and building up of the basis for the practise of track and field in the country. Then he became the national coach and the successful man who prepared the amazing Abebe Bikila for his (and the Ethiopian) Olympic breakthrough. Niskanen introduced fartlek in the country, also a favourite Viren’s training method, and valuable lessons to develop speed endurance, which are still used today by African athletes. Onnis’ assistant Roba Negussie took the best of these teachings and also developed his own ideas. Negussie was academically formed in physical education in Czechoslovakia and his successor Woldemeskel Kostre in Hungary and Germany, in a moment Ethiopia had become a communist country and was under the influence of the Soviet Union block. Eastern European athletic school would complement the Scandinavian one and the blend would help become Ethiopian athletes world beaters in international competitions. Ethiopia was a privileged destination for East German athletes as Olaf Beyer, Jurgen Straub and Ron Weigel, for their workouts in altitude and also Ethiopian runners went to Postdam for training camps, competed in meetings in the GDR and their coaches were formed in Leipzig. (3)  Ethiopians as Miruts Yifter have been famous for their outstanding last lap, and this sensational speed was developed through very short hill repeats and intervals on the track up to 60/100m. It was a founding of an Eastern coach, Hungarian Mihaly Igloí. However Finnish runners were also influenced by Igloí as Ethiopians admired Lydiard.   Thanks to their superior training methods, Ethiopian and Finnish long distance runners were in a world appart in the 1980 Olympic Games.  Moscow was the triumphal venue for Miruts Yifter but also for his coach Roba Negussie, the day the Ethiopian athletes won the tactical battle over a master tactician as Viren.

















           Lasse Viren was an athlete with really economic running ways. Even someone with such floating style as 10.000m silver medallist in Munich Emiel Puttemans was quoted to feel irritated because his rival did not seem to make any effort while running. Furthermore, the last of the Flying Finns knew how to be in control of every race spending as less energy as possible. Viren’s world record at the 2 miles event some weeks before the Olympics, made enter the hopeful Finnish as the dark horse for the long distance races in Munich. Briton David Bedford, who had been soundly defeated in that competition, decided if someone was to get the better of him again in the Olympics, he would need lot of guts to do it. Bedford started the 10.000m final with a first lap of 60sec and kept a highly demanding pace, well under the existing world record splits, making frequent surges as if he was the new Vladimir Kuts, followed in every one of them by Ethiop Miruts Yifter. Meanwhile, Viren was comfortably sitting in the centre of the pack. When Bedford paid his suicidal tactics, was the moment chosen for Viren to take the initiative at the 6k point. He kept the high pace, which fitted his interests, and eventually launched his sprint with 600m to go, in a never seen before move, thus killing the kickers as Yifter. Viren completed the last 800m in 1:56.2 to win the race in 27:38.40, a new world record. After this demonstration, Steve Prefontaine and Ian Stewart stated they would be running the last mile in 4min if necessary to break the Finn at the 5000m. Having been his rivals tactics unveiled, Viren knew what to do. After a slow first half, Prefontaine made the perfect race for his rival, surging in the last km, indeed running the last mile in 4min (4:01 exactly) as promised. Thus Viren only needed to follow him, progressing to second place in the only time he abandoned the inner edge of the first lane in that final, and eventually produce another long sprint to destroy the young American and Gammoudi, the only other runner Prefontaine had not eliminated.
                 In Montreal, at the 10.000m, things were even easier for Viren, because world cross champion Carlos Lopes did all the front running, steadily increasing his pace (the second half was run in a stunning negative split of 13:36.23). Everybody was left out by the brave Portuguese, except the same Viren, who did not have any problem in getting the better of a rival without final kick. In the 5000m final no one wanted to facilitate the Finn's victory this time, but the defending champion himself took the lead in the last stages of the race, running the last 1500m in a time which would have gained him the fourth place in the Olympic race won by John Walker, and again surging with 600m to go to eliminate the kickers as Kiwis Rod Dixon and Dick Quax. The unprecedented "double doble" at the Olympic long distance events had been done and Viren still had the strenght to achieve a praiseworthy 5th place at the marathon. (4)   

Emiel Puttemans and Steve Prefontaine at the 5000m in Munich Olympic Games      

              As we can see, in Munich and Montreal, Lasse Viren always had got to bring the finals to his own territory. With the eventual winner whether in command or trailing an enthusiastic leader, the 10.000m races were both ran in a very fast even pace and the 5000m ones ended with a frantic last mile. Always the circumstances of those races had allowed Viren to launch a long sprint with one and a half laps to go, thus achieving to beat faster finishers than he was. In Moscow, things would happen differently.
            Due to boycott and injuries some of the best long distance runners were not available for the 1980 Olympic Games. It included world cross champion and 10.000m leader of the year Craig Virgin, 5000m European champion Venanzio Ortis, silver medallist in Montreal Carlos Lopes, his compatriot and future record holder Fernando Mamede and the man who had accomplished four world records in 81 days in 1978, the awesome Kenyan Henry Rono. Would the development of the race have been different with them on? Would have change their presence the final results? Maybe but I do not believe it. Anyway it is useless to speculate. The eventual race derived in a spectacular clash between Ethiopia and Finland and this is what we can talk about.   
            Miruts Yifter was back in 1972 an inexperienced athlete on the making, no matter he was already 28 (?) years old. Just the precedent season he had lost to Prefontaine in a competition between Africa and the USA, because of sprinting in the penultimate lap, thinking it was the last one. By 1980, the Ethiopian had learned his lesson and was at his peak. Besides, Yifter was the only individual athlete from his country in the Munich final and now, Mohamed Kedir and Tolossa Kotu had also qualified: every heat in Moscow had been won by one of the Ethiopians. On the other hand, Viren had narrowly made the final, finishing in fourth place in his heat, creating doubts about his actual shape and his chances under hot weather conditions, which was the case in Moscow. Anyway, Viren was a man for big challenges and in the decisive race he was going to show his best version. Besides two other excellent long distance runners from Finland, the European champion at the distance Martti Vainio and Kaarlo Maaninka, were also in the final. In the two precedent Olympic Games, Viren had won thanks to his own individual performance and brilliant strategy, but this time the race was up instead for tactical team competition.    

Kaarlo Maaninka, Lasse Viren and Martti Vainio in a local competition
                One of the things which made the Moscow Olympic 10.000m final so amazing was the fact Ethiopia chose to take the initiative all over the race, unlike most of other competitions at world level they have taken part. Usually, this African country has the man or woman with the best kick in the field (Gebrselassie, Bekele, Tulu, Defar, Tirunesh Dibaba) and is up to the other nations to create the conditions to upset that favourite, while this one sit after the challenger, waiting for the last lap to make prevail his best ending. Thus Paul Tergat tried his chance with a groundbreaking sustained acceleration long before the end; tried in another occasion to break Gebre kicking first too.    Among the women, Paula Radcliffe, with her characteristic front running, produced a especially devastating hot pace in Sidney in order to beat Wami and Tulu; and Elvan Abeylegesse ran in Beijing two kilometres in the last stages of the 10.000m final under 3min, hoping to break Tirunesh. In every occasion the Ethiopian aces were too hot to handle. Only once, besides Moscow’s race, Ethiopia changed on his conservative tactics. At the 2001 World championships, an injuy-troubled Gebrselassie was surprisingly beaten by Kenyan newcomer Charles Kamathi. The national pride was at stake and two years afterwards we saw for the first time Haile front-running and at a very fast pace. With the help of a couple of brisker accelerations of new distance prodigy Kenenisa Bekele, the three Ethiopians broke the whole field, including the defending champion, to accomplish a sensational sweep of the medals for their country, completing the race under 27min and the second half in 12:58.13!

                  In Moscow, Ethiopia had also the best kicker but it was too dangerous to sit in the pack and let the initiative to one man who had proved so good tactically speaking and was intelligent enough to ruin the East African squad chances. It was uncertain if that old Scandinavian man was in the same staggering form than in the previous Olympics but they could not take any risk. Roba Negussie studied thoroughly the circumstances of the race and decided to sacrifice his second best runner, Mohamed Kedir, to make him become a man-trap for Viren. Kedir specially and also his companions executed a flawless strategy to produce an uncomfortable competition for the Finn.  Viren liked to run in a fast an even pace so the Ethiopians, always in command, accelerated and decelerated the race continuously to break Viren’s rhythm and at the same time his confidence. The 4th kilometre was done in a very slow 2.57 but the next one was covered in a fast 2.39, to slow down again in the sixth to 2.47. By that point the uneven pace had broken the legs of most the field: Brendan Foster, Vainio, who was having a disappointing performance in Moscow due to overtraining, German Jorg Peter and his compatriot, a young Werner Schildhauer. Mike McLeod, would be soon the next casualty. The leading group had been reduced to five men: Kedir, Yifter, future national coach Kotu and Finns Viren and Maaninka. At that crucial stage, the defending champion tried to take the lead, followed by Maaninka up to three times in the same lap but in every occasion Kedir sprinted to ruin Viren's strategy, overcoming him and then slowing down the race or producing a sudden acceleration, while Yifter would split the two Finns.

Mohamed Kedir leads Filbert Bayi at the Cross Cinque Mulini

              In Munich, Viren had never done a metre more than necessary, running all the time on the inner edge of lane 1 so an extremely active Prefontaine had conceded him a 40m handicap. In Moscow, Kedir hogged the leading spot for the 90% of the race, displacing to the outer place of lane 1 an increasingly anxious Lasse, who was all the time trying to regain the lead to have the opportunity of playing his cards, in vain. Kedir never gave a chance to Viren to rule the race his own way. Every time the Finn would take the lead it was so brief, he could not entangle anything. The master tactician had been beaten for the first time in his own speciality. With one lap and a half to the line, Viren tried to unleash his last attack as he had done in prior Games, but Kedir made sure the sprint had to be 300m and no more than 300m. As Miruts Yifter surged like a rocket, his compatriot was still leading the group. The shifter went all straight to his first Olympic title, followed by Kedir, Kotu, then Maaninka, while Viren was unable to sustain his rivals' change of speed. Yifter crossed the line ten metres ahead, with a last lap clocking of 54.7sec, while Maaninka won the sprint for the minor medals over Mohamed Kedir. The champion finished fifth after a praiseworthy race, congratulated effusively Maaninka and Yifter and eventually left the stadium, with a last nostalgic glance. Some say Lasse Viren’s performance in Moscow could have been better had not had the Finn a leg injury prior to the Games and had been his preparation more focused on his track races rather than on the marathon. Yet the Ethiopian display of perfect tactics and awesome running in those Games was really hard to match even for the best Lasse. Not having the reference of Viren, the Ethiopians were not as good in strategy at the 5000m. Yifter was boxed at the beginning of the last lap and Kedir had to open up to lane 2, so the leader of the team could find some space to unleash his final kick and struck his second gold medal.      

                     Ethiopia ratified its superiority at the time in long distance with successive victories in Cross country, after making its debut in Madrid in 1981. The following year, Mohamed Kedir was the individual winner. Yifter had targeted the marathon for Los Angeles Olympic Games but could not assist, because of the withdrawal of the national team, and retired soon afterwards. Boycotts, civil war and famine made difficult athletic success during the eighties but when the socio-politic situation in the country was back to normal, after the fall of the Derg, Ethiopian track and field returned to its very best with the sensational Olympic gold medals of Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie. The latter, when he listened on the radio Yifter triumphs in Moscow as a young boy, decided immediately to become a champion like him. If Miruts was able of a last lap of 54sec, his successor would be clocked 48-49sec in 5000m races. However, the ones who achieved again the double 5000/10.000m victories at the Olympics were Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba. On the other hand, Yifter left his job as national coach and went to the exile in Canada, stating he had been hit by the police, because of belonging to the Amharic ethnic group. (5) At that time also another Olympic champion, Mamo Wolde, was put in prison for nine years and died shortly after being released. Nowadays Miruts Yifter is happily returned in Ethiopia.
            1980 was the last competitive athletic season of Lasse Viren. The only standout Finnish long distance runner left for the next decade was Martti Vainio, who finished second in Los Angeles Olympics after Alberto Cova at the 10.000m. Yet he was later dispossessed of his medal after failing the doping test, due to the use of steroids, in a sad ending for the last generation of flying Finns. No first class long distance runner has come out of Finland since.