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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TRACK AND FIELD

Ethiopia's Roba Has No Reason to Be Afraid of the Pack in Back

Women's marathon: Others came in with better times, but she takes charge and becomes the first African woman to win.

July 29, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Ethiopia is regarded as the cradle of distance running, the marathon in particular. Yet there has been a void. While the dominance of Ethiopian men is well documented, the country's women runners have not kept pace.

Not until the victory of Derartu Tulu in the 10,000 meters at Barcelona did an Ethiopian woman win an Olympic medal. That legacy was expanded Sunday after the victory of Fatuma Roba in the women's marathon.

Her winning time on an overcast day was 2 hours 26 minutes 5 seconds.

Second was the defending Olympic champion, Valentina Yegorova of Russia, in 2:28:05. Third was Yuko Arimori of Japan, the silver medalist in 1992. Arimori's time was 2:28:39.

Roba's victory margin was the biggest in the history of the women's Olympic marathon, which has been run only since 1984. She became the first African woman to win an Olympic medal in the event.

"This is not only a special thing for me, but also for my country and all African women," Roba said.

Roba, 25, waited patiently while gold-medal favorite Uta Pippig of Germany tried to set a fast pace and shake the rest of the field. But the pack came back to Pippig, and she had to rethink her strategy.

Pippig, who won the Boston Marathon for the third consecutive time in April, expended too much energy, and by the time the race hit the hills in eighth mile, she was spent. Had the day been sunny and hot, as expected, it might have been a sound strategy, but the chase pack of six runners had plenty of energy to reel her in.

The pack caught Pippig at 10 miles, and Roba began to pull away and run with confidence, even smiling and waving to the enthusiastic fans lining the course. Pippig dropped out at 22 miles.

"Before the race I was afraid of the others with better times, but soon I realized that they were not running fast today," Roba said. "I picked up the speed and they would not follow. At that point I was already sure that I would win because I practiced very hard."

The race was for the silver and bronze medals, and it involved the same runners from the 1992 Olympics, one place further back. In Barcelona, Yegorova set the fast early pace and found the pack rushing back to her. Arimori ran with Yegorova stride for stride during the three uphill miles to the Olympic stadium. Yegorova won by eight seconds.

On Sunday, Yegorova followed Roba into the Centennial Olympic Stadium, which at 9:30 a.m. was full of cheering fans. Roba finished her single lap and won, while Yegorova and Arimori began theirs.

Arimori made no attempt to catch Yegorova, saying later that she mistakenly thought she was to run two laps before the finish.

"I am so unhappy; it was my mistake, as I thought that there was another lap to run in the stadium so I time my run for the silver," she said, crying. "I can't believe there wasn't another lap to run."

Yegorova was excited--and realistic--about her race.

"I felt I could pass [Arimori], but I knew I had no chance against the Ethiopian, so I am very pleased with my time and my silver medal," Yegorova. said. "During the race I almost felt the clapping and shouting of my son and husband, who were watching the race."

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