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Roba following in footsteps of an Ethiopian legend

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 04/17/99

hen Abebe Bikila ran, poetry rode along on his slim shoulders. To watch old film of the legendary Ethiopian in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he competed barefoot and straight and proud, is to understand that for the chosen few, running a marathon is the most natural thing in the world.

When Fatuma Roba takes off from Hopkinton on Monday in search of her third consecutive Boston Marathon win - a feat accomplished by only one woman, Uta Pippig, since women were officially allowed to compete in 1972 - there will be many reasons to be reminded of Bikila.

Roba's style, fluid and seemingly without idiosyncrasy.

Her carriage, one of grace and subtle authority.

And her dreams, grand and humble at the same time.

''My dream is to win again the Olympics, like my countryman,'' she said this week through a translator, a day after arriving from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ''To match the same story.''

In 1960, few had heard of Bikila before he won that Olympic marathon, becoming the first black African to do so and the first Ethiopian to bring home a gold medal. His time of 2 hours 15 minutes 17 seconds was a world record. In 1964, he repeated his triumph in Tokyo, this time in 2:12:12, another world record.

''He opened the door, not only for all Ethiopians but for all Africans,'' said the 27-year-old Roba, born just a year before Bikila died of a brain hemorrhage in 1973 after being left paralyzed from a car crash in 1969. He received a state funeral in Addis.

In 1996, few had heard of Roba before she entered Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta far in front of her competitors, taking the gold medal in 2:26:05 and, in the process, opening still more doors. ''This is not only a very special thing for me, but also for my country and all African women,'' she said after the victory, still wrapped in her country's flag.

''I am not a hero like him, but a lot of people know me because I make the same history at the Olympics,'' said the first black African woman to win marathon gold. ''Especially children. Now they want to be like me.''

When Roba first came to Boston, in 1997, she was intent on validating her win in Atlanta. She succeeded, dominating in the Newton hills and outlasting South Africa's Elana Meyer and Colleen De Reuck in 2:26:23 to become the first African woman to win here and ending the three-year reign of Pippig, who finished fourth. Last year, Roba left De Reuck at the 16-mile mark and ran smoothly, despite pain behind her left knee that had hampered her training and hurt throughout the race, to win in a personal-best time of 2:23:21.

But, oddly, she has not run well elsewhere. At the World Championships in Athens in 1997, she dropped out midway with a leg injury. At Tokyo in 1997 she was fourth, in 2:30:39; last year she could manage no better than eighth there in 2:36:22, running with a cold.

''Chance,'' answered Roba when asked why she runs so superbly in Boston while struggling on other courses.

Not entirely, said her agent, Mark Wetmore of Global Athletics & Marketing. ''I don't think she's as good on a flat course,'' he offered. ''She's very much faster on a difficult course. She thinks if she can break the world record, she can do it here.''

Although Roba remains reluctant to speak English, she has begun spending more time in this country. For several months after last year's race, she and several other Ethiopian runners, including 1989 Boston champion Abebe Mekonnen, rented a house on South Mission Beach in San Diego.

''They fit right in,'' said Mike Long of Elite Racing Inc., who helped arrange the getaway. Running with a local club on Saturday mornings, barbecuing, sunbathing, even playing volleyball (''They'd sneak down when no one was there and they'd try batting the ball around,'' said Long of their introduction to the sport) appealed to the vacationers, although Roba drew the line at riding the roller coaster.

This year, Roba will return to her homeland right after the race, to a nearly completed three-story house and to the inspiration of Bikila's legend.

Bikila, however, did not run well in his only Boston appearance, finishing fifth in 1963 in 2:24:43. At the time, he was the seventh Olympic gold medalist to fail in Boston.

Asked yesterday if she was aware that her time here last year was faster than Bikila's in '63, Roba looked puzzled, even annoyed. What is your question? she wanted to know. He must have had a bad race, she insisted, quick to defend her legendary countryman.

But then she added: ''I'm hoping to make my race even faster this year.''

This story ran on page G01 of the Boston Globe on 04/17/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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