The Man from God Knows Where– and God Knows When!

4 Jun

The young man looked at the diminutive smiling man facing him and wondered. Could this really be the same man that he had heard of and seen old footage of? Was this really the same man who 30 years earlier had achieved what many had considered to be legendary status?

The older man greeted him with what appeared to be an ever present smile. He was less than 5’4”, balding, fat, and wore what could best be described as a dirty grey suit which sort of hung off his shoulders. In a perverse way he had clearly donned the suit to make an effort to impress, possibly not realising that the suit was the absolute antithesis of what one could describe as an impressive appearance.

The two chatted briefly, with the older man having very rudimentary English—almost pidgin English—it was just about possible to follow what he was saying.

The young man was there to be coached— but not coached by yet another coach who could bark orders, make suggestions, talk about technique and regimes which might improve performance— no the young man was there to hear from the master’s voice, to learn from someone who had worn the T-shirt, walked the walk and essentially beaten the rest of the world—– out of sight —— some 30 years before.

Yet it was hard to really accept that this small balding fat man in the rumpled suit was the same man who had been king of the world in his chosen sport.

However, as soon as the old man swapped the suit for a tracksuit, the young man knew that this was indeed—– THE man.

Despite his age—whatever it was— and the belly, when the little man started to run, he did so effortlessly and with an ease and grace that was just indescribable, yet his way of running was as good as a signature. The young man knew that gait—and would know it anywhere—and he felt his heart quicken—this was really happening.

The old man made him run solidly for one hour non-stop. He ran with him for some of that time, and then stopped and contented himself with coaching and encouraging from the side-lines in that pidgin English. Then, as the young man approached the completion of the hour’s workout, the wee balding man strode on to the track and ran beside him once more to give orders from the shoulder—- matching him step for step—- speaking in what could be described as a sing song voice:

“ Now” he said “Spreent—Spreent fast as you can—for waan mile—four times round dee track with no stopping and as fast as you can—–Go!”—and with that the wee man was off.

The young man chased after him, caught him, went by him—and ran for his life.

For the next three and half laps he ran as he thought that he never could. The old man had stopped running other than to accompany him in 40-50 yards bursts each time his student came round the near side of the track— which just kept the young man going until the last of the four laps were completed.

When they were finished the young man collapsed over a barrier and was more violently sick than he had ever been in his life! He retched and retched till his ribs were aching and his guts were as empty as could be. His throat was dry and in pain. Death, he thought, might well be a possibility at that point—and it might even be welcome!

The feeling of discomfort was made all the worse by the fact that the same smiling pot-bellied little man stood watching. He leaned against a barrier with his legs and arms crossed showing ever greater amusement at the younger man’s discomfort. With each painful retch of the gut, the little man cackled and laughed—getting ever louder and finding the scene amusing and funny. When eventually the youngster had spewed his last, the older man patted him on the back and said “well done!” and started to walk back to the changing room with the young protégé.

The younger man’s legs were like lead and he felt almost dizzy and unsteady on his feet. If this was progress— the truth was that he didn’t like it— at all.

As they walked, the older man added some final words of wisdom:

“ You can go faster, you know! You just have to keep training. Push yourself and focus on geeving evereree last ounce of effort”

“ Oh” he said “ One more thing. No women!— You go faster with no women” and with that he cackled off laughing uncontrollably as he headed into the changing room.

————————————————————————

The story of the small balding man referred to above is one of sports great mysteries. For someone who became a household name in certain quarters, it has to be said that even several decades on there are many things that remain unknown about the man concerned.

Much of what remains a mystery stays that way because he just will not tell you! Perhaps there are some things that he simply does not know about himself? On the other hand there are some things that he most certainly does know but simply just does not talk about—and never will.

What is known, is that he pitched up in Toronto Canada in 1997 and to the astonishment of some if not all, he sought full formal political asylum. He was given a house, access to a lawyer, some furniture and a rudimentary income while his application for asylum was under consideration.

In support of his application to stay, he showed those interested his bare legs. They were grotesquely marked with welts, bruises, cuts, scabs and other abrasions which showed that he had recently been badly tortured— so much so— that after a prolonged period of living under an authoritarian and bullying regime—he had had enough and decided to leave his native country surreptitiously and with no warning whatsoever.

He took the decision to leave his family behind and seek asylum in Canada. He was fleeing for his life!

In public, however, he would not say too much for fear of recriminations back home—recriminations which would be exacted on his family who remained there— family who were vulnerable while he stayed in Canada and made the position of his homeland public by his very presence.

It was all so very different from that day in the ‘60’s.

Back then, the little man had been a simple goat herder and occasional factory worker.

Poor?

Poor wasn’t the word for it.

He lived in the mountains, in a mud hut and scraped a living working in different factories, as a carriage driver and herding his goats.

Then, one day, he saw a running team. They were clearly training for an event somewhere.

Each member of the team, had shorts and a vest. They had been conscripted into the air force, and they were kitted out with those shoes, shorts and vests. More importantly, they were given accommodation and food.

The little man watched them run, noted their speed and their stamina and decided he would go and speak to their commanding officer in charge.

When he found the officer, Captain Gudina Kotu, who was leader of the team, he introduced himself and begged him to let him run with the training athletes. Captain Gudina, after a degree of badgering and pleading, finally succumbed and agreed to let the little man who stood before him run with the rest of the squad.

They would be having a race the following day, said the Captain, and the goat herder was allowed to try his luck.

The next day, a troupe of somewhat surprised trained athletes were joined in a cross country race over several miles, by a previously unknown midget like goat herder and factory worker – who astonished all by managing to come third with no training whatsoever.

Within a short space of time, the little man was an ex goat herder and was inducted into the Air force instead. When he performed exceptionally in the 1500, 5000 and 10000 meter events in the Asmara region he himself took the decision to approach national officials present and asked if they would let him practice with the national team that was making final preparations for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As a result, he was placed in the national team and was soon on his way to Mexico where he was part of a team that was preparing for the Games.

He wouldn’t get to run competitively in Mexico—as only two spaces were allowed, but he saw what it took at a major international event and he knew that eventually his time would come.

However, before he could make a name for himself on the world stage—or even any stage— he had to answer a few questions such as who was he, what age was he, and where did he come from.

Well, he knew his name alright he thought—it was Muruse although he was sometimes called Miru.

As for his date of birth?

He had no idea. In subsequent years it would be officially recorded as 15th May 1944 – then again it would also be officially recorded as 1st January 1938 – and several dates in between. In truth, no one really knows but his appearance suggested that he was more likely to have been born in 1938 than 1944.

Where did he come from? Sometimes he said Adigat—other times he said the Tigray region—again he was quite vague. Wherever he came from, he came from somewhere up in the mountains of Eritrea.

After the 1968 Olympics he disappeared from international view—not that he was well known internationally before then—he had just been recorded as a member of the Olympic party for 1968, but no one had seen him run other than a very few people in his homeland.

By the 1972 Olympic games that was all to change.

You would think that coming third in an Olympic Games event would result in you gaining some sort of credence in your own country? A bronze medal at an Olympic Games is no mean achievement.

Yet in this case, when the little man’s aircraft touched down carrying him and his bronze medal, he was not met by the kind of welcoming party one would expect. As he walked down the aircraft steps, he was met by national officials alright, placed in a car and taken straight to jail!

He would remain there for three months—without trial and without explanation.

The fact that he had finished third in a 10,000 metre race which saw the great Lasse Viren crowned Olympic champion at the distance was irrelevant in the eyes of the authorities. The fact that he had won his heat beating Scotland’s Lachie Stewart and in the final had beaten other international names such as Dave Bedford and Frank Shorter of the USA counted for nothing.

What had attracted the ire of the authorities was the fact that the little goat herder just failed to turn up for the final of the 5,000 metres. He just did not show at all and as a result the Government thought him a traitor—the no show being an act of treason.

Later, he would say that he got lost in the stadium and that he had made a mistake. Later still he would say that he was misdirected by officials. He would also claim that some of his own national officials had deliberately given him wrong information about where to go. At other times, he would simply refuse to talk about what had happened at all, with the result that over 40 years later, what happened that day in 1972 is still a mystery—a mystery that had him taken straight to jail without trial when he returned home.

This was the start of his difficulties with authorities. These difficulties would come and go until he decided he could bear it no longer and fled for Canada.

However, back in 1972 he continued to train—Prison or no Prison, Authorities or no Authorities. He trained in the prison, and trained on his own when he was eventually released. Once again he sought permission to run for his country notwithstanding his jail experience.

The following year would see him enter the all-African games, and he would take Gold in the 10,000 metres and silver in the 5,000 metres defeating the much fancied Kenyans and Moroccans, and leaving former Olympic Champion Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia in his wake.

In the world of international athletics, the little goat herder was now a force to be reckoned with

But who he was and where he came from still remained a mystery as people could never reconcile his given date of birth with his appearance. Surely he was older than that? He certainly looked older than that—a lot older.

However, the questions about his age subsided as people were mesmerised by his astonishing speed—especially over a final three hundred to four hundred metres. Whatever age he was there was no doubting the fact that at the end of any distance race at all, he could suddenly take off with a devastating burst of speed which simply left everyone else in his wake.

The questions about his age subsided even further thanks to an inadvertent comment from the BBC’s David Coleman during the course of a race. By that time, the little man entered races under a different name than Miruse or Miru— instead he gave his name as Captain Miruts. His surname was sometimes written as Yefter, but more often as Yifter, and so on one fateful evening David Coleman, in an attempt to describe his running tactics and his unbelievable burst of speed over the last 300 metres of any race, dubbed him Yifter—— The Shifter!

The Legend of Yifter the Shifter is a tale of a small man who came from God knows where and who could simply run naturally and more quickly than any other human being on the planet over a given distance. A feat which he performed in the strangest of circumstances over a prolonged period of time.

During a stranger than fiction athletics career, Miruts Yifter would run in 252 officially recognised distance races—these included Grand Prix, Olympic races, World championships, African championships and challenge matches. Of the 252, he officially won 221 of these.

When I say 221 I should explain that there is at least one other race that he won—or should have won or thought he won.

Running in America against the US track and field legend Steve Prefontaine, Yifter and Prefontaine were the only two left in the race as they reached the final stages. Suddenly, Yifter took off in a blistering burst of pace which the American just could not match. The small balding man tore round the track to the astonishment of all watching and stepped off the track as he crossed the finishing line. However, he had miscounted the laps and Prefontaine merely continued round the track to claim victory.

Yifter later explained he had miscounted the laps—he was after all a simple goat herder and was prone to the odd glaring mistake— such as not turning up for an Olympic 5,000 metre final.

Irrespective of the result, it was clear that despite Prefontaine’s superb ability, he could not live with the small balding man when Yifter decided to shift. No one could.

Having claimed Bronze at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the 10,000 metres, Yifter was all set for Gold in Montreal in 1976. He was confident of a 10,000 and 5,000 metres double.

Alas it was not to be.

On the eve of the games, the Ethiopian Government decided that they would boycott the games along with most other African countries. The action was taken in protest at the International Olympics Committee’s refusal to ban New Zealand from the games after the All Blacks had toured South Africa where the Apartheid regime was in place. Whilst disappointed, Yifter wholly supported the ban, however when he returned home to Ethiopia he was to find yet another unexpected welcome when returning from the Olympics.

Not only had the Ethiopian Government supported the Olympic boycott—they had disbanded the Athletics team altogether.

Yifter was now left to train on his own with little or no organised support.

Further, taking his own stated dates of birth, he was now (in 1976) either 38 or 32—with most suggesting that he was at least 38!

In Montreal, Lasse Viren had retained his 5,000 and 10,000 metres Olympic titles to great acclaim. However, it was now accepted that Viren used the controversial practice of blood transfusion before races—and virtually only ran at Olympic events. While Yifter admired Viren he believed that he was the better athlete.

At Coamo, Puerto Rico on 6 February 1977, Yifter ran a World Best for the half-marathon of 1:02:57. It was a performance that made the Athletics world sit up and take notice again.

At the 1977 World Cup in Dusseldorf Yifter blew away the 5,000 and 10,000 metres fields and lifted both titles—but there was no Viren and he wanted the Viren scalp.

Two years later, The IAAF World Cup came to Montreal, Canada. Now there was a new generation of runners. Craig Virgin had taken over the mantle of the American hero from Prefontaine who had been tragically killed in a car crash. Virgin was the big American hope. John Treacy of Ireland was a contender as was Kunze of Germany who was an incredibly fast finisher.

However, yet again, they all trailed behind the former goat herder when it came to the 10,000 metres. When it came to the 5,000 metres, David Coleman once again questioned Yifter’s age in the commentary box and begged the question as to what cost Yifter would pay for winning the 10,000 metres only days before. Surely that had been energy sapping for a man of any age? Let alone someone who was clearly older than the official age given?

When the 5,000 metre race had two and half laps to go the Russian athlete Abramov decided to make a move and started to sprint for the finish only to find the tiny African match him step for step. With 300 metres to go the little goat herder took off once more at a speed that had to be seen to be believed. His last lap took just 53 seconds. He was now a double double world champion and undoubtedly the greatest male athlete at the games.

But there was no Viren.

For those who do not know, Lasse Viren was borne in Finland on the 22nd of July 1949 which puts him somewhere between 5 and 11 years younger than Yifter.

He trained as an athlete at Brigham Young University in America for a while, and made his international debut at the 1971 European Championships in Helsinki where he was eclipsed by his fellow Fin Juha Väätäinen, who captured gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events with Virén settling for modest 7th and 17th placings, respectively. By the way the 5,000 metres race between Juha the cruel and the chasing Russian is one of the greatest of all time where Juha set a new Finnish record.

However, It is said that Viren would have performed much better in Helsinki had he performed the “Emptying Exercise” to ensure that he was at his finest for the all-important race.

By the “emptying exercise” top runners mean that they push their bodies to a state of total exhaustion or lack of energy ( just as described at the start of this story ) so that their bodies can completely replenish and once again receive  as much energy as possible, and so that they can repeat their top race performances. Shortly after those European Championships, Viren broke Väätäinen’s fresh Finnish record at 5,000 metres.

Buoyed by a brutal training regimen in Thomson’s Falls, Kenya, and very impressive results, which included the smashing of the 2-mile world record and wins against Great Britain and Spain in a meet held in Helsinki in the summer of 1972, Lasse Virén entered the Munich Olympic Games as a dark horse.

As we know, Viren won the 10,000 metres ( breaking Ron Clarke’s 7 year old world record in the process ) and did the double when he also triumphed at 5,000 metres. He repeated the “double” feat in the 1976 Montreal games when the African nations boycotted the event. In the 5,000 metre final, he held off all-time greats Dick Quax, Rod Dixon, and Brendan Foster (all world-class at 1,500 m) with a devastating display of front-running over the last few laps. To those who watched him, the display was awesomely inspiring to the point that his last 1,500 meters in that final would have placed him 8th in the 1,500-metre final held at those Games. The top four runners sprinted to the finish line inside six metres, a rare occurrence in major international championships. Remarkably, 18 hours after the 5,000-meter final, he competed in the men’s marathon and finished fifth in 2:13:11

However, the 10,000 metre final of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow would see Viren face Yifter for the first time since the 1972 final in Munich. Viren, nearly didn’t make the final as he looked helpless in his heat finishing 4th and so was not guaranteed an automatic final place. Indeed he was lucky in that Ireland’s John Tracy was forced to pull out of the final due to heat exhaustion – and that put Viren in the final automatically.

In the final race itself, Viren performed spectacularly and ran an excellent race—so much so that in commentary David Coleman almost totally ignored the other athletes who were running with him. All British interest—Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod were some considerable distance back, and so Coleman and the late Ron Pickering referred constantly to the remarkable turn round in form shown by the Finnish Policeman in comparison to his miserable showing in the heats. He was in many respects dominating the pace of the race even though it had tuned into a contest between Ethiopia and Finland with both nations exclusively represented in the leading pack. The commentary was very much focused on the Fin’s attempt to win a third successive gold medal. However, unlike Montreal four years before, right on Viren’s tail throughout the race was Miruts Yifter who was barely mentioned in the course of the race.

Noticeably smaller than all the others there, Yifter claimed to be officially thirty five years old at the time, although in early commentary David Coleman would rubbish that by saying he was at least thirty seven and looked considerably older.

Prior to the race, Yifter had been asked directly just how old he was and replied in a manner that must have been studied by a young Eric Cantona back in France:

“Men may steal my chickens; men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age.” He said—to the mystification of all.

Going by at least one date of birth given by Yifter in official competition previously, the tiny Ethiopian would have been 42 years old in Moscow. Since his retiral from Athletics, his request for political asylum has apparently thrown up evidence that he was in fact more likely to have been 44 years of age—fully 13 years older than Viren who was of course considered a veteran at 31.

Irrespective of what age he was, when the race got to 800 metres out Viren strove for home but could not escape the pack despite an obvious quickening of the pace. Having made the move, and having failed to put clear space between himself and the chasing bunch, Viren was more or less helpless when the man from God knows where, born God knows when, turned on the burners with 300 Metres to go!

When Yifter turned up the pace the rest wilted. No one had finishing speed like this and he simply ran away from the remainder after 9,700 metres of fast paced racing in blistering heat.

The Goat Herder was an Olympic champion, the African Champion and a double double world champion.

It had taken 12 years since Mexico 1968 to achieve that goal and if we now accept that he was in fact born in 1936 then had he won gold at the same age as Viren when Viren won in Munich, Yifter would have been crowned Olympic Champion in 1960!

In other words, Had Yifter started running at an early age he could have competed at the very top for 20 years!

Yet, he was not finished.

A few days after securing the gold medal in the 10,000 metres, The Little Goat Herder lined up for the faster 5,000 metre final.

In a competition that had featured Mohamed Kedir and Yohannes Mohamed of Ethiopia, Ireland’s John Treacy and Eamonn Coughlin, Finland’s  Martti Vainio and Kaarlo Maaninka, Tanzania’s Suleiman Nyambui and a whole host of other world class athletes ( The likes of Britain’s Dave Moorcroft could not even qualify for the final ) Yifter ran fully 20 seconds faster than he had done in the semi-finals, and fully 23 seconds faster than he had done in the first round, to take his second gold of the games!

The fact that he was only 0.6 of a second faster than Nyambui in second place and a single second ahead of Maaninka in third demonstrated that Yifter only did enough to win. He was pressed to the very finish by Nyambui who had been the fastest man in the world over the distance the year before.

However on this occasion the towering Tanzanian could only follow the little goat herder home and later in the year they could all only stand and watch as Yifter recorded the fastest time in the world in Bratislava where he would run the distance more than 20 seconds quicker than he did in Moscow.

Clearly, The Olympic Games in Moscow and the track and field season of 1980 were the zenith of Yifter’s athletics career yet he continued to compete into the early 1980s, running on Ethiopia’s gold medal winning team at the 1982 and 1983 IAAF World Cross Country Championships when by all accounts he would have been 47 years old!

After Moscow A hero’s welcome awaited the double gold medal winner when he returned home to Ethiopia from the 1980 Olympics. Thousands lined the streets and he was given a car, a luxury villa and a Government position promoting athletics. It was very different to his return from Munich in 1972.

Amazingly, Yifter decided that he would target the Marathon at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles but once again his country’s decision to Boycott an Olympiad meant that his plans were wrecked, and soon after he retired from all competition not far short of possibly his 50th year.

However, his retiral was not to be peaceful.

By 1997 he had lost his Athletics Job and he fled to Canada in fear of his life.

He fled in the middle of a horrific civil war where being from the wrong tribe or place had dire consequences—even for an Olympic hero. Hundreds of political prisoners in Ethiopia were detained without trial at the time, according to Amnesty International. Many were tortured. Journalists, teachers and union leaders were all imprisoned. Others simply disappeared. At the time Ethiopia was one of only two African nations that did not ratify the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. As Yifter was to demonstrate in Canada his legs had been badly tortured and scarred—where once the Ethiopian Government had sought glory on the achievements of those legs, now they wanted to break them altogether.

Thankfully, over time, things in Ethiopia improved and the little goat herder was able to return to his home country where the tradition of long distance running has prevailed.

Haile Gebrselassie had listened to Yifter’s victory in Moscow on a radio and had determined to emulate the nation’s sporting hero, which he did by becoming one of the world’s all time great distance runners.

However, it was a generation down the line that saw Ethiopia return to the very top of athletics with Kenenisa Bekele, becoming 5,000 and 10,000 metres world champion and holder of the Olympic 10,000 metres record, having repeated Yifter’s triumph of taking Gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in Beijing.

Millon Wolde and Gezahgne Abera, were the Ethiopian gold medallists in the 5,000 metres and the marathon respectively at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and like Bekele both had stints where they were coached by the little Goat Herder.

Captain Miruts Yifter —–Mysterious but talented and inexplicable.

His age is a secret and his place of birth uncertain, but one thing is sure:

To many in Ethiopia Yifter is a hero who deserved all the medals he won and the accolades given to someone who had the most astonishing burst of speed over an amazing long distance running career. His age and the mystery of what he could have achieved had he started running seriously at an earlier age will always be the subject of conjecture.

However few top class athletes in any sport trained from prison or on their own or faced such difficult and oppressive times as the mood of the government see sawed from one year to the next.

It took incredible resolve to achieve success against that back ground—and a love of just running faster than anyone else.

Today, Miruts Yifter does what he can to support refugees from all countries and lends his name to various movements which help the politically oppressed and needy.

He is revered as a former Internationally known athlete and coach

However, for me, he will always be the little goat herder who will be remembered for that astonishing burst of pace and for the inevitable comment  “ There goes Yifter— The Shifter!”

Race over.

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4 Responses to “The Man from God Knows Where– and God Knows When!”

  1. voguepunter June 4, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    BRT&H…You’ve done it again,fantastic sport story.HH

  2. BMCUWP June 5, 2013 at 4:42 am #

    BRT&H

    Once again,that is MacIlvanney-esque.

    Athletics does nothing for me,but this article is a work of art,and an education.

    Thanks,bud!

  3. Andrew H June 5, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Brilliant article. I watched the two races in Moscow on YouTube after reading this and his acceleration is remarkable, given the occasion, heat, distance and his age.

  4. scottc June 9, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Most enjoyable BRTH. You write these things so incredibly well.

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