Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia, the Satchel Paige of track and field, won a splended Olympic 10,000 meter race today that turned into a team battle between three Ethiopians and two latter-day Flying Finns.
The 5-foot-4, 117-pound Yifter, who says he will be 37 years old in September but is widely believed to be over 40, unleashed his fabeld closing kick and sprinted to the gold metal in 27 minutes 42.7 seconds. His victory, though, came only after unexpectedly though opposition from Lasse Viren, the enigmatic, 31-year-old Finn who won both the 5,000 and 10,000 in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.
Viren has a history of doing little that is remarkable between Olympiads, then rising to heroic heights at the golden moment. He barely qualified for the 10,000-meter final and only his adoring countrymen expected him to challange Yifter -- the amazing little man who looks like Old Father Time in a receding Afro and is known to track buffs as "Yifter the shifter." t
Rumor had it that Viren -- his country's greatest distance runner since the original "Flying Finn," Paavo Nurmi, and a national treasure of such stature that Finnish President Urho Kekkonen came to watch him today -- might drop out of the 10,000 letting his gold go undefended so that he could marshall his strength for either the 5,000 meters or the marathon later this week.
But Viren, his bearded face a portrait of fierce Nordic pride, came to run today. He and unheralded teammate Kaarlo Maanika, a big, raw-boned lad who took the silver medal in 27.44.3, ran a strong and sprinted race, to the delight of many Finns who had come across the border to cheer and wave their national flag in 103-000-seat Lenin Central Stadium.
It took a good deal of foxy and often ferocious teamwork on the part of Yifter and fellow Ethiopians Mohammed Dedir (the bronze medalist in 27.44.3) and Tolossa Kotu to thwart the Finns.
Yifter failed by 20.3 seconds to match the world record of 27:22.4 held by Henry Rono of Kenya, who was absent because of the U.S.-led boycott by approximately 50 nations in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. b
The winning time was 4.3 seconds off the Olympic record set by Viren at Munich in 1972. But Yifter was jubilant nonetheless, and joined Ethiopian teammates in a joyous dance in the stands after the race.
"It is no so simple to run for a world record in the Olympic Games or a big meet," Yifter said through a teammate, who translated from Amharic to English. "we are running for results, for medals, so it is difficult tactically to go for records. I wanted to make a world record time, but decided it was better to run for results."
Yifter's impressive kick to the wire climaxed a long and eventful day on which world records were set in swimming and track, and the Soviet Union's men's basketball team was shocked on its home court for the second night in a row.
The Soviets, heavy favorites to win the basketball gold in the absence of the United States, fell to Italy, 87-85, Saturday night and ended their lost weekend with a 101-91 overtime loss to Yugoslavia tonight. The Soviets still have a chance to make the final, since their opposition remains suspect, but no one believes any longer that they could have challanged the Americans, even in their own gym.
East Germans Rica Reinisch, Barbara Krause and Caren Metschuck each won a third gold medal of these Games with world record swims, but the powerful East German women fell short of exceeding their 1976 haul of 11 golds in 13 races, again winning 11.
Reinisch won the 200-meter backstroke in 2:11.77, breaking the 1978 world record of Californian Linda Jezek. Krause and Metschuck teamed with Ines Diers and Sarina Hulsenbeck to win the 4x100 freestyle relay in 3:42.71, eclipsing the world record of 3:43.43 set by the United States two years ago.
The East German women were thwarted in their effort to set a record in gold medals, however, when Austrailian Michelle Ford won the 800-meter freestyle in an Olympic record 8:28.90. East Germans Diers and Heike Dahne (who couldn't match her own Olympic record time of the preliminaries) won the silver and bronze.
One world record was broken in track today by 26-year-old Nadezhda Olizarenko, who led a Soviet sweep in the women's 800 meters. Her time of 1:53.5 broke the record of 1:54.9 set by Tetyana Kazankina of the U.S.S.R. at Montreal in 1976, and tied by Olizarenko on June 6.
Olizarenko, who is married to a leading Soviet hurdler and trains with him daily, broke from the pack at the start of the second lap on the 400-meter tartan track. Teammate Olga Mineyeva went with her, and they set a torrid pace.
With 120 meters to go, it looked as if the tall Mineyeva -- moving on the outside with long strides, her braids flapping behind her -- would go ahead. But Olizarenko put on a burst of speed and flew to the wire. Mineyeva was second, matching the old world record, and Tatyana Providokhina of the U.S.S.R. was third.
Other track and field gold medals were won today by Thomas Munkelt, 27, an East German dental student who upset Cuban Alejandro Casanas by one-hundredth of a second in the 110-meter hurdles, and by Dainis Kula of the Soviet Union, who won the javelin with a throw of 91.2 meters (299 feet 2 inches).
Munkelt, an admirably steady hurdler who never seems to have a bad race, took the gold in 13.39, well off the world record of 13.00, held by Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah.
Casanas thought he had won the race, and pounded his fist disgustedly when he saw the clocking of 13.40 put him a fraction behind Munkelt. The East German later leaped to the victory stand as sweetly as he had glided over the 42-inch hurdles.
Kula achieved the third best javelin toss in the world this year. The two better were 96.72 meters (317-4) and 96.18 (315-7) by world record holder Ferenc Paragi of Hungary, who had vocal support in the stands today but failed to qualify for the eight-man final. Paragi's best throw was 79.52 (260-11), and he placed a bitterly disappointed 10th.
The long program in track and field included Cuban Alberto Juantorena's first race since surgery on his Achilles heel, a successful first-round heat in the men's 400 meters, and 34-year-old Pole Irena Szewinska's heartbreaking failure to qualify for Moonday's 400-meter women's final.
The highlight of the day, though, was the climatic 10,000 meters -- a great race despite the absence of the redoubtable Rono, who would have been favored to win if there were no boycott.
Yifter knows how Rono must feel. He was third in the 10,000 meters at Munich in 1972, and was disqualified from the 5,000 meters because he was in the bathroom, forgotten by the coach who was supposed to fetch him, when his heat was called. Then he missed the 1976 Games in Montreal because of the boycott by 26 Black African nations to protest New Zealand's sports ties with South Africa.
He won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in both the World Cup at Montreal and the Soviet Spartakiad in this stadium last year, and was primed for the Olympics. Like the old baseball pitcher Satchel Paige, who used to wink and lie when anyone inquired about his true age, Yifter has been around a long time and has waited for major league gold.
Judging from the qualifying heats, Yifter thought he would cruise to victory and possibly run against the clock. He had not counted on such a dogged performance by Viren, but he and his speedy Ethiopian sidekicks were ready.
For the first 15 laps, the 15-man field was bunched, but then the Ethiopians and the Finns started to make it their own race. For the last nine laps, they battled each other magnificently, with legs and elbows, the lead changing frequently.
Although five men were battling for the lead, this was really a two-man game of cops and robbers. Yifter and Viren both are policemen, Yifter for the Ethiopian Air Force, Viren as the constable in his remote hometown of Myrskyla. Their teammates were the robers, so much a factor in the developing strategy that Viren said later the Ethiopians had won with "murderous tactics."
The five leaders were practically in each other's shorts for lap after lap, passing each other and darting in and out of traffic like mad drivers on a Los Angeles freeway.
"The Ethiopians broke the pace, continuously changing the lead, stoping and then pushing harder again to crack our nerves and our resistance," said Viren, who kept plugging even though he knew in his heart that he had not tired Yifter enough to blunt his celebrated kick.
Yifter, a father of five who runs about 100 miles a week on the roads and hills of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, has the most demoralizing finishing power of any distance runner. And as he burned down the final straight, it was clear no one could catch him.
He crossed the line pumping his left arm in the air ecstatically, over and over. Then he did a little dance and embraced Kadir and Kotu (fourth in 27.46.5), who had worked so hard to grind the game Finns into the brick colored track. Later, they joined the teammates who were singing and dancing and waving flags in the stands.
Maaninka held on to finish second. The proud and gutsy Viren, furious at himself for waiting too long before testing the pace, faded to fifth, but had nothing to be ashamed of.
In defeat, his countrymen cheered him as they had in victory.