Tulu prepares finishing lesson

It does not do to underestimate Derartu Tulu. Three weeks after signalling her return to élite level by winning a third world cross country title, the Ethiopian is in London to remind her rivals that they ignore her at their peril.

It does not do to underestimate Derartu Tulu. Three weeks after signalling her return to élite level by winning a third world cross country title, the Ethiopian is in London to remind her rivals that they ignore her at their peril.

Tulu's place in history is already secure. In 1992, at the age of 20, she became the first black African woman to win an Olympic title when she defeated a 10,000 metres field at the Barcelona Games that included Elana Mayer of South Africa and Britain's Liz McColgan.

For that performance, this farmer's daughter from the village of Arssi, 4,000 metres above sea level and 80 miles from Addis Ababa, has been inducted into Ethiopia's version of an athletics hall of fame. Opposite the main grandstand in the capital's national stadium is a representation of the Olympic rings, inside each one of which is the picture of an Ethiopian running idol. The gang of five reads as follows: Abebe Bikila, Mamo Walde, Miruts Yifter, Haile Gebrselassie... and Derartu Tulu.

Having achieved legendary status so early in her career, Tulu has spent the last eight years adding further lustre, winning world cross titles in 1995 and 1997, and a silver medal in the 1995 world championships. But it was her most recent world cross victory that resonated most strongly, coming as it did after a two-year period in which her progress had been checked by a lingering knee injury and the arrival of a baby daughter, Tsion.

In outsprinting Gete Wami, her fellow Ethiopian who had beaten Paula Radcliffe to the world 10,000m title the previous summer, Tulu demonstrated that she need fear no one in the world of distance running.

London's defending champion, Joyce Chepchumba, demonstrated her own sprinting powers in 1997 when she overhauled McColgan to win by the space of a second. But even she cannot feel confident about the way things might turn out should it come to a quick finish with Tulu, who trains with the national men's marathon squad back home, the slowest of whom has a 2:16 time to his name.

"It's fast training - harder than the Olympic Games," Tulu said. "I still do 100m repetitions up hills to improve my speed." She came from an environment that was equally demanding, one of 12 children, four of whom died young. "Our family kept cows, sheep and horses, and I had to take the animals to the water," she said. "I also had to carry the water for my family as a child, and it was a very long way. When I was a child I never dreamt I would be a famous athlete."

But after taking up running seriously at the age of 15, her progress was such that she was given a job as a prison officer in the capital - and plenty of time to train.

Her financial reward from the government for winning in Barcelona was modest by Western standards - less than £6,000 - but huge by the measures of wealth operating in her war and famine-torn country. Her family's farm has also benefited from her talents. "They don't have a car, but I have bought them a tractor and a plough," she said. "Before they had to use a horse and plough."

Inevitably in such a poor country, her wealth and renown sometimes causes her problems. "Sometimes people do come up to me asking for money," she said. "I can't walk around so much because everyone knows me and they stop and ask for my autograph."

Second place behind Loroupe by 40 seconds in the Lisbon half-marathon earlier this month has given Tulu a recent measure of how close she is to the top level of marathon running. And, although she still has not ruled out running the 10,000m in Sydney, it is the marathon - where she has a best of 2:30.28 - which appears to hold out the remaining challenges of an epic career.

"I want to prove myself in the marathon," she said. "London will be my third marathon, but it is the first one I have trained for specially. Maybe if I go on and win in Sydney they will make another Olympic ring for me..."

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