It was a chance remark by the 85 year old miracle-marathoner Ed Whitlock* which led me to do an internet search on Miruts Yifter ‘the Shifter’. Ed is in London visiting his sister and we met up for a chat in a Thamesside café this week. Ed happened to mention that he sees Yifter, who has been living in Canada for some time, at the Toronto Marathon every year. A cursory search revealed very little, but when I consulted Ethiopian English language sites, I quickly discovered that the double gold medal hero of the Moscow Olympics 1980 has been seriously ill in a Toronto hospital for several months. There is even (painful) video of Miruts talking (in Amharic) to an Ethiopian internet journalist. It is clear that the former long distance legend has difficulty in speaking since he apparently has a collapsed lung.
Initial reports claimed that Miruts was dead, and dozens of Ethiopians, who had heard the news on the Amharic grapevine turned up at Bridgepoint Hospital in the area known as Old Toronto to pay their respects. Instead they were able to have a chat with the diminutive legend, whose bed is apparently surrounded by chairs for an unending stream of guests and well-wishers.
According to Zecharias Zelalem, who visited Yifter for his report on Ethiosports website, ‘He is noticeably frailer and looks slightly strained. Hooked up to tubes which facilitate his breathing, it produced a lump in my throat when I recall this man being one of the best long distance runners on the planet in his heyday. But the fierce looking wolfish glare in his eyes is still there today, and Ethiopians who have grown up watching reruns of his Olympic achievements will still be able to recognize Miruts after a careful second or two of observation. The man now sipping from a thermos of Atmit, an Ethiopian creamy formula of milk, wheat and various flours is the same man who immortalized his name in Olympic history thirty six years earlier in Moscow.
‘It appears that the nursing staff at the hospital didn’t realize they had an internationally renowned sportsman at their venue. “The day the news came out that he had died, the hospital received phone calls non-stop! We couldn’t deal with all the calls and later started directing all calls to the hospital straight to his ward,” one of the nurses tells me. “It was amazing. I didn’t realize just how famous he was.” “Mr. Yifter had hundreds of visitors in two days,” said the front desk secretary. “Some were crying, others were in clear shock. I had one grieving woman tearfully ask me if the body was still here. She wouldn’t believe me right away when I told her he was alive!”’
Yifter is officially 72 years old, but in common with several Ethiopians, including even Haile Gebrselassie, born in country communities, there seems to be some belief that he is up to six years older, which would have made him 42 when he won 5000/10,000 metres golds in Moscow. But even an ‘official’ 36 years old was surprising enough.
It seems that his condition is so serious that he cannot leave the hospital, so it looks unlikely that he would ever be able to visit Ethiopia again, notwithstanding the political situation which forced him to leave in the first place. Although the photo above, taken at the wedding of Kenenisa Bekele in 2007 proves that he was able to come and go less than a decade ago. So, for the time being, we can all hope that the man who bridged the Ethiopian gold-medal gap between the immortal Abebe in Rome 1960, and the era of Haile and Kenenisa keeps on shifting for several more years yet.
* I shall be writing about the extraordinary Ed Whitlock in a few days’ time.
In the meantime, check out the links elsewhere on this site to my book on another extraordinary character – QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zátopek.