Great Britain’s Liz McGolgan, the United States’ Lynn Jennings, South Africa’s Elana Meyer and Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu all got their close-up before the commentator declared them to be the athletes that will make up “the race.”
Tulu would go on to win an Olympic gold medal, becoming the first Black African woman to do so. Her victory would inspire an entire generation of young Ethiopian women to pursue sports, despite the odds stacked against them. But Tulu’s win reverberated even further. To many, she represented an embodied sense of global racial justice, defeating a White South African rival and cementing Ethiopia as a global powerhouse in running — and no longer just on the men’s side. Her name belongs among the greats who have shaped women’s sports around the world.
Thirty years ago, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were poised to initiate the start of a new global era in sport. They took place less than a year after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the end of South Africa’s apartheid law. With a burgeoning media landscape with global broadcast capabilities, stakes were especially high. When newly competing nations South Africa and Ethiopia — embodied by Meyer, who is White, and Tulu, who is Black — toed the line at the end of the Olympic Games, the race was as much about symbolic and cultural value as it was about running fast.
During the Cold War, the Games had become a site for geopolitical and international racial conflicts. For example, South Africa had been banned from competing in the 1964 and 1968 Games for refusing to condemn apartheid. In 1970, it became the first nation to be formally excluded from the modern Olympics. In 1976, when the IOC refused to ban New Zealand after its rugby team had toured in South Africa that year, 29 countries — mostly African — boycotted the Games. Ethiopia was chief among them.
Ethiopia’s participation in the Olympics had also waned over the years, mainly because of the Games’ function as a symbolic battlefield for Cold War politics. Despite having several Ethiopian men atop global sporting podiums in the 1960s, Ethiopia was largely absent between 1976 and 1992.
It was not until the 1970s that Ethiopian women began to train and compete in sports in school. Because women continued to face cultural barriers to entering elite sports, Ethiopian women had not yet been able to compete in the Games. The country was better known internationally for enduring a famine that led to mass death and coincided with a brutal civil war in the 1980s than for its athletes.
But in 1992, both Ethiopia and South Africa returned to the Olympics, and the 10,000-meter race pit them against each other: Tulu and Meyer were expected to dominate. Meyer began running in primary school, and by the age of 13, she was one of the top prospects in South Africa, slightly aided by the relative ease of participation of White athletes there. Had South Africa been permitted to compete in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games, she would have had the performances to qualify and excel. Tulu grew up in Bekoji, Ethiopia, which has since become famous as a “Town of Runners” because of its success in training star athletes. Although she seized the opportunity to run in grade school, her mother forbade her from doing so, forcing her to sneak out of the house and win local competitions in secret.
The 10,000-meter race is a long and grueling 25 laps. Often, the first half of the race is run in a big group at a relatively slow pace, with the race picking up tempo and becoming more interesting in the second half.
Ten minutes into the race in Barcelona, the commentators noted that Tulu and Meyer were probably the best “kickers” in the field, meaning they were the most skilled in sprinting at the fast pace needed late in the race. While a few athletes dropped off from the pack, not much changed for the next nine minutes. Then, all of a sudden, Meyer surged and changed the dynamic.
“All of South Africa is tuned in to their television sets because she has been voted the athlete of the year last year in that country and of course coming in here she was their one big medal hope,” the commentator noted excitedly.
Tulu was the only athlete to cover Meyer’s move. Commentators suggested she had high heat tolerance — she was wearing a white T-shirt — because she was from Africa, an overplayed trope grounded in racist assumptions about Black athletes having “natural” and “environmental” advantages in sport that diminished their hard work and achievements.
In Tulu’s case, the trope was even more wrong because she was famously from Bekoji, a town that lies at over 9,000 feet, where temperatures seldom go above 75 degrees and where grass is often covered by frost in the early mornings. Further, the Ethiopian training style and philosophy was centered on avoiding hot temperatures and the strong equatorial sun. Tulu, like nearly all Ethiopian athletes, trained at dawn and dusk in brisk conditions and would have had a hard time finding hot and humid conditions in which to train.
In the final laps of the race, Tulu displayed brilliant running strategy. Meyer urged her to take the lead with a hand wave, and Tulu would not comply. As the laps ticked away, Meyer’s form broke. She nodded her head up and down; her arms flailed with greater gusto every straightaway; her teeth began to show as her grimace grew deeper. All telltale signs of a runner on the verge of breakdown.
Tulu, by contrast, stayed stoic. Meyer tried to surge ahead, to no avail, and the commentator uttered, “She turned around to see the effect and all she saw was someone in a white T-shirt, staring down at her heels.” Then Tulu handily took the win.
After winning, Tulu draped an enormous Ethiopian flag over her body and took Meyer along with her on a victory lap. International media outlets loved the display of interracial solidarity and saw it as evidence of women asserting themselves in a sport that had treated them as lesser. One New York Times journalist declared: “African women are only now beginning to emerge as a new force in track and field, after years of cultural attitudes that discouraged athletic participation” and that “the two women, wrapped in their flags, seemed to symbolize the new Africa of multiracial sports.”
But it was also a win for Black African women. It recast the global image of long-distance female runners, which at the time had appeared as overwhelmingly White. Even though depictions of Tulu’s perceived “natural” ability and strength may have been pitted against Meyer’s wit and skill, Tulu’s ultimate victory upended expectations. It also signaled to the world that Black African women, often portrayed as docile recipients of patriarchy and racism, could rise to the top of a racist and sexist world.
Following Tulu’s victory, stories of her heroism flooded Ethiopian news and media. “Princess Derartu Goes to Barcelona for Coronation,” an Ethiopian Herald headline read. Young women heard interviews over the radio about her performance, training and upbringing and drew inspiration from that. Athletes remember seeing Tulu in the papers and cite her as a direct influence for choosing to move to Addis Ababa and pursue sports. Roundabouts, streets and buildings are named after her.
Since Tulu’s performance in 1992, an Ethiopian woman has won the 10,000-meter Olympic final all but two times, with several other countrywomen also landing on the podium. And Ethiopian women have gone on to win countless marathon and track titles. Tulu now serves as the president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, but her Olympic win and her legacy live on in a multitude of ways; most notably, through the footsteps of hundreds of young girls training to be just like her.
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