Saturday, August 8, 2020

Africa Olympic stories: Derartu Tulu, the first black African woman to win gold

by Emeline Nsingi-Nkosi
BBC Africa Sport

In 1992 Ethiopian Derartu Tulu became the first black African woman to win Olympic gold, pulling off a spectacular victory to triumph in the 10,000m final at the Barcelona Games. This is her story.

The philosophy that took Derartu Tulu to greatness is simply expressed: “You need to be tough in everything you do.”

The Ethiopian had a stunningly successful Olympic career. 10,000m gold in 1992, the same again at Sydney 2000, and a bronze at Athens 2004.

In a strong field, she remains one of the most popular athletes in her country’s history.

But she did not start out with a love of running. Indeed, her preference was for her feet not to even touch the ground – as what she loved as a girl was horse riding.

“It was a hobby my dad I shared – he also loved riding,” she recalled.

“In fact my father was named after a horse – he was called Abbaa Jootee, and Joote was the name of the horse.

“It was a beautiful childhood. When I went to school, when I looked after our cattle, I literally used to ride a horse wherever I went.”

But having got into running, she had shown enough potential to make the Olympic squad for Barcelona 1992, aged just 20.

However, while there was expectation that the event would see the first gold medal for an African woman, it was not Tulu who was linked with it.

Instead, with South Africa now readmitted to the sporting world as it put in place reforms to end Apartheid, road race star Elena Meyer was the favourite.

Britain’s Liz McColgan, who had won the event at the World Championships in Tokyo the year before, was also a strong contender.

And it was McColgan who led from the off. For lap after lap, the Scottish runner looked to have the race under control, with the rest of the pack hanging back.

But then with nine laps to go, Meyer struck.

The South African decided to break for it. McColgan was caught cold – as was everyone else.

Everyone, that is, except Tulu.

As much and as quickly as Meyer sought to stretch away from the other athletes, Tulu kept with her. Only the American Lynn Jennings was able to even try and catch the pair, but soon the gap was widening to her too.

It was clear with some laps to go that there would indeed be a first African female gold medallist. But which it would be was very uncertain.

Tulu was still in Meyer’s shadow as they came to the bell. At that moment, however, she made her move.

“I followed her until 400m was left – and I suddenly sped up and took the lead,” Tulu said.

She did not let it go. It was a historic moment – not only the first African female gold medallist, but the first black one too.

Sometimes, close-run races like this turn the competitors into bitter rivals. Here, however, it had the opposite effect.

A close relationship was born out of the win.

“I didn’t know what she [Meyer] was saying to me when I won,” Tulu recalled.

“I only spoke to her in signs. Since then, we have gotten to know each other and after I studied some English, we even started calling each other.

“We became friends and she’s the woman I admire most.”

Tulu noted that this moment was a big one for women’s athletics.

“After I won gold in Barcelona, many women runners started thinking that it is possible to win big competitions,” she said.

But she does not only work to inspire female runners.

She has been the president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) since November 2018, where she is working to change Ethiopia’s athletics results.

“The number of medals Ethiopia is winning in recent competitions is reducing tremendously,” she noted.

“Competitiveness as a country is also losing its momentum. The issue of not being as competitive as we used to be has also been seen at the World Athletics Championships.

“Our results have gone down very much. Our neighbour and main rival Kenya has taken over on every international competition. We have to take lessons from those competitions, we have to look deep into Ethiopian athletics and identify what went wrong and bring our glorious days back.”