Twenty years ago on a hot night in Barcelona, two women circled the track in Montjuic Stadium on an Olympic victory lap that, in many ways, still goes on.
On August 7, 1992, in the women’s 10,000 meters, Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu broke from the pack midway through the race to take the lead. Only South Africa’s Elana Meyer gave chase, and soon took over the lead. Lap after lap, Tulu hung on Meyer’s shoulder; at the bell, the young Ethiopian took off to win the gold medal in 31:06.02. Meyer took silver, in 31:11.75.
Together, they had just made history: Tulu, only 20 years old, was the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal; Meyer, 25, was the first South African to win an individual medal in her nation’s return to the Olympic family after being excluded since 1960 over its apartheid system.
But it was what happened next that struck an emotional chord around the globe. As Tulu turned back toward the track after an impromptu celebration with Ethiopian coaches and fans along the boards of the stadium, Meyer ran up to kiss her once on each cheek in congratulations. As they began their lap of honor, Tulu reached over to grab Meyer’s hand and they raised their arms in a spine-tingling moment of united triumph.
“What a sight this is,” declared a British TV commentator. “The Olympic Games have brought South Africa back into the rest of Africa, because you couldn’t imagine this happening some months ago.”
It became an iconic Olympic image, a visual declaration of what the Olympic Games are meant to be. In London, Tulu is one of 16 athletes, along with Sir Steven Redgrave, Jesse Owens, and Cathy Freeman, whose stories are told in an exhibition that opened last Friday in the Royal Opera House, “The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games.”
Back in 1992, however, Tulu and Meyer were just happy and proud to be bringing medals home to their country. Neither woman fully realized the impact of what they had just done.
“I never realized the significance then, but I do today,” wrote Meyer, 45, in an e-mail last week. “Twenty years later, people remind me of what it meant to them. Today many people in my country still stop me to tell me where they were when that race was on. It united the country like only sport can do, even if it is for a brief period. It gave people courage and hope.”
Today, Meyer is CEO of the JAG Foundation in South Africa, which offers sporting opportunities to disadvantaged children. Among its programs is Mighty Metres, inspired by the New York Road Runners Mighty Milers initiative.
After Barcelona, Tulu went on to become perhaps the greatest woman distance runner in history. In addition to winning another 10,000-meter Olympic gold medal in 2000, she won bronze at that distance in 2004 and finished fourth in 1996. A three-time World Cross Country Champion, she also won the 2001 London Marathon and the 2009 ING New York City Marathon.
“At that time I didn’t realize how symbolic it was,” she wrote in an e-mail of that historic day in Barcelona. “At this time, it is different from the past. I am very proud of my victory, which is a symbolic and historic for the whole continent of Africa. It especially paved the way for African women to participate in such international games.”
Among those women is Tulu’s cousin, Tirunesh Dibaba. Since Tulu’s breakthrough in 1992, six of the 12 women’s Olympic medals at 10,000 meters have been won by Ethiopia. On Friday, Dibaba will go after some history of her own, seeking to become the first woman to win consecutive Olympic gold medals at the distance.