Athletics-Women's champion Roba runs in Boston for Ethiopia
[09:58 p.m Apr 18, 1998 Eastern]

By Sabrina Yohannes

728fatuma.jpg (18076 bytes)BOSTON, April 19 (Reuters) - Ethiopia's Fatuma Roba, the defending women's champion in Monday's Boston marathon has accepted the responsibility of running for an entire nation.  Roba, the 1996 Olympic gold-medalist, is constantly reminded
of her special place in the hearts of Ethiopians.

Presenting awards at the annual cross-country championships in Addis Ababa last year, she met Mohammed Ali, a coach from the city of Harer who came up to her gushing with admiration. ``My wife gave birth to a baby girl soon after the Olympics and I
named her 'Fatuma' after you,'' he said.

``Abebe Bikila was the first to win an Olympic marathon for Ethiopia and Fatuma was the first from the women. This is my first daughter, so it fit perfectly,'' he explained.
``People call out to me in the streets in Ethiopia,'' says Roba. ``Sometimes, if there are a lot of people around me when I go to a store, I feel a bit intimidated. I used to be shy -- I still consider myself shy -- but I'm a little better now and I'm getting used to it.'' Roba won two marathons in the space of a year before the Atlanta Olympics -- in Marrakesh and in Rome.

She says she drew strength from her cheering, flag-waving supporters during her Olympic victory in two hours, 26 minutes and five seconds, and was fully satisfied after her win.

``Even if I never ran again, I would have been content,'' she says.

But what convinced her that she had to keep running was the reaction she got when she went back home -- a huge parade winding through the streets of Addis Ababa and cheered by thousands, followed by an official ceremony where Roba and her fellow medalists were given job promotions.

``The reaction I felt from people had a big impact on me,'' says Roba. ``I suddenly felt such a great sense of responsibility. I felt that I had to try to keep running, as long as I possibly could.''

Roba started running in her elementary school in the Arsi region that was once home also to Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie, 10,000-meter Olympic gold-medalists in 1992 and 1996 respectively.

Fatuma Roba was the fourth of eight children of subsistence farmers living in the rural countryside outside Bukeji, Derartu Tulu's hometown. Roba began winning 100-meter and 200-meter races and was chosen to represent her school in regional competitions.

``I knew of (1960 Olympic marathon winner) Abebe Bikila and (1968 winner) Mamo Wolde from the radio, so I thought I'd try it, too,'' she says. Unlike many rural women runners, Roba says she faced little objection from her Muslim family when she decided to take up the sport. Four years later, she moved to Addis Ababa and became a runner on the prison police force, where she remains today with the rank of major to which she was promoted after Atlanta.

She prepared for the Boston course both last year and this by running on the hills just outside Addis Ababa. It evidently paid off last year, since immediately after her victory she was asked about the big incline on the course and she made the instantaneous response: ``I've been told there is a big hill, but I didn't see it.''

Roba feels she is well-prepared again this year, although she says she has had occasional knee trouble including at the Tokyo marathon last autumn, when she finished fourth. She is not concerned about the threat of rain on Monday.

``As long as it doesn't get cold, it'll be fine,'' she says. ``I expect good results.''

So does the Ethiopian community of Boston. The immigrant residents of the city had held high hopes for Roba last year after witnessing her televised feat at Atlanta, and when she won in Boston, they were ready.

Late on the night of the race, after the official marathon celebrations, fans packed the Addis Red Sea Ethiopian restaurant, where an Ethiopian flag adorned the wall.

At a victory ceremony organized by sports and community associations, the athletes received trophies amid speeches and victory chants.

Said Derartu Tulu, who ran her first marathon in Boston then and placed fifth: ``It's good when the world sees this side of Ethiopia, instead of just the hardships.''

Hiwot Solomon, a Boston sixth-grader at the time, said she had been yelling ``Go, Fatuma!'' on the course and stayed up for the ceremony to get Roba's autograph.

Roba appreciated all the attention, and stayed in Boston for a week after the marathon. ``They all went out of their way, getting us awards and everything,'' she says. ``During that week, Ethiopians in Boston took us out for lunch, for dinner, sightseeing every day.''

The community is ready again this year, not only for Roba, but for 1996 New York City marathon silver medalist Turbo Tumo and two of Roba's running partners, Belay Wolashe and Senayt Teklu, who is not running in Boston but accompanied Roba.

All the athletes received many more invitations to celebrate the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter on Saturday night and Sunday than they could handle, and community groups have their Monday schedules full.

The marathon course is where many will be in the morning, but for the night, victory celebrations have already been planned.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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