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Ethiopian Follows Script in Marathon

October 02, 2000|LISA DILLMAN

SYDNEY, Australia — The eccentric Olympics ended . . . eccentrically.

What else would you expect on a race course featuring a banner that said, "Fatso! Fatso! Fatso!"

Naturally, the banner had nothing to do with the size of athletes. It was a reference to the cult mascot hero of the Olympics, Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat.

In any event, the final sporting event of the Games in Sydney, the men's marathon, featured all sorts of obstacles Sunday, as if running a tough 26.2-mile course wasn't enough. Once the elite runners figured out which way the wind was blowing, it changed direction.

And if the wind didn't take them out of their game, there was the excitable flag-waving spectator, who whacked one of the leaders in the pack in the eye about halfway through the race.

The winner, 22-year-old Gezahgne Abera of Ethiopia, survived his own body blow, hitting the pavement and hurting his knee at 10.6 miles. The humble prodigy from the Ethiopian highlands stayed within range and then took some advice from one of his tiring elders, Tesfaye Tola.

At 23 miles, Tola knew he had little left, telling the kid to go after leader Eric Wainaina of Kenya.

"You chase him," Tola told Abera. "I am tired now. You chase him and win."

Abera followed the script and won the first gold medal for Ethiopia in this event since 1968, finishing in 2 hours 10 minutes 11 seconds, 20 seconds ahead of Wainaina. Mamo Wolde, at age 36, won in Mexico City. Wolde is in prison, having been accused of a shooting.

"[Abera] didn't believe it. It's been almost 30 years," said Ethiopian team doctor Ayalev Tilahun, who acted as an interpreter for Abera and Tola, who finished third.

"Not only for him but for the whole of Ethiopia, it's an upset."

Wainaina continued his steady Olympic progress. He finished third at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

"I'm very happy," Wainaina said. "My next plan is to get gold."

American Rod DeHaven, who needed medical treatment afterward, finished 69th in 2:30.46.

Tiyapo Mosa of Botswana asserted himself at the start and led by more than a minute at 9.3 miles. But the pack pulled him in by the time the runners wound through the Central Business District. He said the conditions took their toll, saying: "Because of the wind, it was too difficult."

Then there were the problems of Domingos Castro of Portugal. The 36-year-old Castro, who finished second last year in the New York marathon, was smacked in the eye by a flag-waving fan just after the halfway mark.

Castro flinched and put his hand over his eye. For the next few minutes, he was in clear discomfort.

"It was an accident," he said. "I know he didn't mean to hit me. There was still a long way to go at that stage and I lost concentration on the race because I had to pay attention to my eye. It was painful from then on, but I'm not going to use it as an excuse for my performance."

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