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Star Ethiopian runner out to conquer Chicago

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000

CHICAGO -- Ethiopia is the second-poorest country in the world, yet one so rich in distance running talent that it tied for second behind the United States in the track and field gold-medal count at the 2000 Olympics.

The Ethiopians won four golds and were third in total medals (eight), all in races of 5,000 meters or longer. Only the U.S. and Russia won more medals, and Ethiopia was without its marathon record-holder, Tesfaye Jifar.

The stomach virus that slowed Jifar, 24, from November through April, meant Ethiopia's Olympic selectors did not think he would be fit enough to run well in the Oct. 1 Olympic marathon.

"He told me, "If I would have run there, I would have won,' " said Terefe Jifar, one of the runner's seven brothers, who works for a Boston law firm. "(Tesfaye) said it was okay, that he will do it the next time."

Just how well Tesfaye Jifar, who did not become a marathoner until 1998 and has run only two, has recovered from his illness will be evident in today's Chicago Marathon -- if he gets over travel fatigue by then.

Jifar, who lost his right eye at 10 when he was gored by an ox on the family farm, arrived Friday afternoon after a daylong trip from Ethiopia. The Chicago Marathon will be his second race of the year.

Among Ethiopia's Olympic medals were Gezahgne Abera's gold and Tesfaye Tola's bronze in the men's marathon. A year ago at Amsterdam, where he set the national record of 2 hours 6 minutes 49 seconds, Jifar beat Tola by eight seconds.

Their country's distance-running tradition began in 1960, when Abebe Bikila won his first of two straight Olympic marathon gold medals.

The glory slowly faded during the 17-year period from 1974 through 1991 when Ethiopia was ruled by Marxists. It revived when Derartu Tulu won the women's 10,000 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Tulu won the race again this year in Sydney.

"Tulu created new opportunities for Ethiopian women, and that steamrolls," said South Africa's Elana Meyer, second to Tulu in 1992, when she was the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold.

In Sydney, Ethiopia's Gete Wami (silver in the women's 10,000, bronze in the 5,000) joined sprinter-jumper Marion Jones of the United States and race walker Robert Korzeniowski of Poland as the only athletes to win medals in more than one individual track event.

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