Roba's win in women's marathon returns Ethiopia to running glory Bikila initiated tradition with back-to-back '60s wins

Atlanta Olympics

July 29, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The tradition goes back to Rome in 1960, to the barefooted imperial bodyguard named Abebe Bikila. It was there, in the Olympics, that he started a run of three straight gold medals for Ethiopia in the marathon. More important, the victory was the impetus for a generation of distance runners to emerge from that African country.

Fatuma Roba is a part of Bikila's legacy, and now part of Ethiopia's history in the Olympic Games.

Emerging from a small pack of more high-profile runners a little less than midway though yesterday's women's marathon, she distanced herself from the field and won easily. Her time of 2 hours, 26 minutes, 5 seconds was a full two minutes ahead of defending champion Valentina Yegorova of Russia. Yuko Arimori of Japan, who won a silver medal four years ago in Barcelona, Spain, took bronze.

In winning her third straight marathon this year and her fourth of five since moving up from 10,000 meters three years ago, Roba became the first African to win the Olympic women's marathon, which has been run four times since its inception in 1984.

That, too, is a remarkable achievement considering the second-class treatment women still receive in Ethiopia. "They're very much excited when they heard about her Atlanta moment," said Ayalen Tilahun, the physician for the Ethiopian team. "Some may collapse. I'm not kidding."

Roba had plenty left as she emerged from the tunnel leading into Olympic Stadium. With the help of her high-altitude training back home, as well as some lowered heat and humidity here on a rainy morning, Roba, 23, took advantage of her downhill speed to build a sizable lead.

After being part of the group that passed early leader Uta Pippig of Germany at about 10 miles, Roba never was challenged after pulling away between miles 11 and 12.

As things turned out, Pippig might have been the most famous rabbit in marathon history. Considered the pre-race favorite after her courageous victory in this year's Boston Marathon, she pushed to the front early before fading badly and pulling out after about 22 miles.

Americans Anne Marie Lauck and Linda Somers were seventh and 29th, respectively. Jenny Spangler, who came out of nowhere to win this year's U.S. Olympic trials, dropped out after the seventh mile with a sore Achilles' tendon.

The victory by Roba -- the first by an Ethiopian in the Olympics since Mamo Wolde followed Bikila's back-to-back wins with a victory in Mexico City -- was likely to set off a celebration back home in Addis Ababa, the capital.

And despite the inequality in Ethiopian society, her picture likely will be put in a place of great distinction, the rings of Ethiopia's national stadium. And there will be parties from Addis Ababa to Cokeji, the town in which Roba and Derartu Tulu, one of the favorites in the women's 5,000 and 10,000 meters, grew up.

"There will be a celebration in the streets," Roba said.

This is not only the first Olympics for Roba, but also the first she ever has seen. One of six children who range in age from 14 to 35, Roba left her family's farm at 12 and moved in with one of her older brothers in Addis Ababa in order to continue her education. Recruited three years later by a club run by the local prison police, Roba finished 11th in her first marathon in Paris in 1994. She has not lost since, winning in Rome and Marrakesh this year.

While Pippig lives in Boulder, Colo., and Arimori trained there the past four months, Roba came here only a week ago with the rest of the Ethiopian team. Used to the cool mountain air near her home, Roba had trouble getting acclimated. If it wasn't the heat, it was the humidity. But when yesterday morning turned out to be overcast, Roba and her supporters knew she had a good chance. "I can say, 'Thanks, God,' " said Tilahun. "I wasn't expecting her to win in this weather."

The ease with which Roba ran at the end and the reservoir of energy she seemed to have as she finished the 26.2 miles were stunning. It made veterans such as Yegorova run for second place, and the Russian appeared satisfied with the silver.

The same with Arimori, who said, after adding a bronze to the silver she won in Barcelona: "Before this race, I did not know about Roba that much. Today, when she left [the pack] I decided not to follow her."

Nobody did, unless you count a small group of her countrymen from this city's large Ethiopian community. As she passed them on the route, they danced in celebration. Just as they will be doing from Addis Ababa to Cokeji. Just as they did for a barefooted legend named Bikila.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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