Miruts Yifter, an Ethiopian runner and two-time Olympic gold medalist known for his explosive bursts of speed, died on Thursday in Toronto. He was 72.
Yifter was widely known as Yifter the Shifter for his acceleration, which propelled him to gold medals in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
In an article describing his strategy, The New York Times reported: “Yifter won the 5,000 with his trademark, a burst of speed over the final 300 meters that makes it look as if he has suddenly jumped on a bicycle while the others in the race are still merely running. It is a move to which other runners usually have no answer, and today was no exception.”
His Olympic career began in 1972 in Munich, where he won the bronze medal in the 10,000. He missed the 5,000 race when his coach failed to summon him in time for the start.
He did not compete at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal because Ethiopia, like other African countries, boycotted the Olympics that year. The boycott was in protest of the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to ban New Zealand, whose national rugby team had toured South Africa in defiance of a widely observed athletics embargo on that country because of its policy of apartheid.
Yifter continued to compete into the early 1980s, running on Ethiopia’s gold-medal-winning team at the 1982 and 1983 International Cross-Country Championships. But life after his Olympic victories was overshadowed by unrest in his home country.
He lost a coaching job with the national team and, he said, was beaten by security forces because he had run afoul of the country’s leaders. In the late 1990s, he moved to Canada.
Miruts Yifter was born in Adigrat, a village in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. His birth date is listed by most sources as May 15, 1944, though in a 1997 interview with The Times, he said he was not sure of his age because record-keeping in the rural area where he grew up was spotty.
Yifter had seven children, most of whom live outside Ethiopia, The Associated Press reported.
He worked in factories and as a carriage driver before he joined the Ethiopian Air Force. He first gained international attention as a long-distance runner in 1971 when he ran in the first United States-Pan Africa meet, in Durham, N.C.
His achievements inspired a new generation of Ethiopian runners, including Haile Gebrselassie, who won gold medals in the 10,000 meters at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
“Miruts has been everything to me and my athletics career,” Gebrselassie was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “When I started running, I just wanted to be like him. He is the reason for who I am now and for what I have achieved.”
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