"I don't count the years. Man may steal my chickens. Men may steal my sheep. But no man can steal my age." -- Miruts Yifter

Forget for a moment about the English middle-distance kings Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, about Soviet gymnast Alexander Ditiatin and his eight medals, about the ebullient Pole who set a world record in the pole vault and the sensational young East German who did the same in the high jump.

They are all marvelous athletes, who earned their places in Olympic history the past weeks. But perhaps the most remarkable and ultimately the most fascinating champion of the Moscow Games is ageless and timeless Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia, the only man to win two individual gold medals in track and field here.

Yifter won the 5,000 and 10,000-meter runs, duplicating the double in those taxing races achieved in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics by Lasse Viren of Finland.

Viren is 31 years old now. He finished fifth in the 10,000 here, and chose to run in the marathon instead of the the 5,000 but dropped out before the finish. Yifter is at least four years older, more likely 10, and looks as if he could go on forever, a balding, wizened little man with legs that seem too long for someone who stands only 5 feet 4 1/2 and weights 117 pounds. He runs and runs and runs and still has enough left for a devastating kick.

The entry list for the Moscow Games says that Yifter was born on June 5, 1945. That would make him 35. He says he will be 37 in September. jFriends say he is 39, and many track insiders insists he is on the other side of 40.

Yifter admits that he has no idea of his true birth date. When asked about it last week by Dudley Doust of London's Sunday Times, he gave the sort of big smile common to a man enjoying a private joke, and replied with a rapid burst of Amharic, the only language he speaks.

The translation revealed a line Yifter has used before -- his good line about the chickens and the sheep. Take the man's animals, but leave him the riddle of his age.

Yifter has a wonderful face and a forehead that stretches all the way to the top of his cranium before giving away grudgingly to a halo of curls that more resemble a hat than a hairdo. He looks like Old Father Time, his expression suggesting that he has encountered all the world's questions, if not all the answers.

He is the eldest of five children of a peasant farmer in the town of Adigrat, in the hilly northern region of Ethiopia, near the Red Sea. The myth is that he developed his extraordinary stamina and finished kick by charging up and down the steep terrain as a youth, but Yifter says it came from attending a school 12 miles from home.

"When I was a boy, I was not running in the mountains, up and down," he said." "I was running only to the school."

He had no training or races as a runner until his mid-20s. Much like an American ghetto kid who sees his natural athletic ability as a reprieve from a life sentence of poverty and hardship, he made up his mind in 1968 to go to the city of Asmara, where Ethiopia was holding its trials to pick a team for the 1968 Olympics, and asked to run in the 10,000-meter tryout.

"I did not want to follow the ox," he says now of the gamble that changed his life, "so I went to Asmara."

The national coach, then as now, was Roba Nigussie. His first inclination was to tell the strange interloper to get lost.But the trials were held at halftime of a soccer game, and the crowd of 20,000 spectators started chanting, "Let him run, let him run." Nigussie did.

Yifter wore sneakers, not track shoes, and revealed his naivete by sprinting from the starting gun. He was exhausted after five laps, and finished last. Nonetheless, the coach was impressed, and gave Yifter a letter of introduction to a friend at the air force base near Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Yifter was given a job as a guard there, and a chance to train. He made the most of it.

He made his Olympic debut in 1972 at Munich, winning a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters. He was disqualified from the 5,000 because, when his heat was called, he was in a bathroom underneath the stadium, and didn't get to the starting line in time.

That was one of several misfortunes that have kept Yifter from full, international recognition until now, and also added to his legend.

In 1971 at the Pan African Games in Durham, N.C., he has leading the late Steve Prefontaine in the 5,000 meters but miscalculated and kicked one lap too early, stopping and thrusting his arms in the air triumphantly 400 meters before the finish, puzzled as the pack kept on running.

He once missed a meet in London because he assumed he was on a non-stop flight from Addis Ababa to the British capital, and got off when the plane landed, at an intermediate stop in Frankfurt.

And, in 1976, at Montreal, he was denied his chance to compete in the Olympics when Ethiopia joined 25 other Black African nations in an 11th-hour boycott over inclusion of New Zealand, which had sporting ties with South Africa.

His exploits since then -- including double victories in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 1977 and 1979 World Cups, last summer's Soviet "Spartakiad" and now the Moscow Olympics -- have people wondering anew what would have happened if Yifter had raced Viren in his prime four years ago.

"Yifter the Shifter," as he is known because of his penchant for changing speeds, surging to the front of the pack and then drifting back again, often in a team effort with fellow Ethiopians who idolize him, trains about 95 miles a week.

He runs twice a day on the roads and in the hills of Addis Abada, a city of 1.2 million population which is 8,000 feet above sea level and often has temperatures in the 90s.

He has six children, ages one to 11.

He takes evident pleasure in his sport. During a race, that knowing face reveals joy in the flight as well as the victory. After the 10,000, which he won comfortably, he said: "I felt great happiness when we started the race, I got the feel of my opponents very early, and we Ethiopians were running as a team."

Now a captain in the Ethiopian air force, Yifter lives comfortably in a large villa, and was recently honored with the prestigious Order of the Blue Nile. At a victory party in the Ethiopian Embassy here Friday night, there was talk of his getting a promotion to major.

Yifter is also looking ahead four yeats to Los Angeles."My Olympic closing ceremonies," he told interviewer Doust this week "will be the marathon in the 1984 Games."

By that time, his age will surely be more than 30 spring chickens and 10 old sheep. But please don't try to count his years.