Last week, Canadian Running reported that Miruts Yifter was at a Toronto hospital recovering from a collapsed lung. The two-time Olympic champion passed away Thursday night at Bridgepoint Hospital, his family and Ethiopian Athletics Federation officials told the Associated Press on Friday. He was 72.
Known as “Yifter the Shifter,” the Ethiopian won two gold medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in the 5,000m and 10,000m. He won a bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics before the East African nation boycotted the 1976 Games. After the 1972 Munich Games, he was put in Ethiopian prison after he missed the 5,000m final. According to Athletics Weekly, theories range from Yifter getting lost on the way to the stadium to getting in a “pre-race dispute” with team officials which led him to miss the race start. He was released months later and notably returned at the 1973 All Africa Games.
He earned his nickname because of his late-race surges in that he would be able to shift gears and accelerate helping him multiple Olympic medals and world cup titles.
Memorable race videos
Men’s 5,000m final at the 1980 Olympics
Men’s 10,000m final at the 1980 Olympics
IAAF World Cup 10,000m, Montreal, 1979
“When I started running, I just wanted to be like him. He is the reason for who I’m now and for what I have achieved,” legendary runner Haile Gebreselassie said of Yifter. Gebreselassie added that Yifter “is the best-ever athlete Ethiopia ever had after the great Abebe Bikila.”
One of Yifter’s sons, Biniam, said that his father had been suffering from respiratory problems. Yifter had been living in Canada for more than 15 years. Yifter has seven children, according to the AP.
— Fisseha Tegegn (@total_433) December 23, 2016
In early November, several news outlet mistakenly reported that Yifter had passed away before the then 72-year-old confirmed that he was still in hospital. Hundreds, if not thousands, called or visited Yifter in hospital prompting one nurse to say, “I didn’t realize just how famous he was.”