by Stephen Granger
Elana Meyer and Deratu Tulu’s shared celebration of their gold and silver medal-winning performances in the 10 000m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics remains one of the world’s most powerful images. Thirty years after the two young athletes stole the hearts of all who witnessed their contest, Meyer and Tulu returned to the Monjuic Stadium in Barcelona to reunite, reconnect and relive those moments of sporting greatness.
Back in 1992, Elana Meyer surged into the lead with ten of the twenty-five laps to go ahead of a strong field including the likes of Britain’s Liz McColgan, Germany’s Uta Pippig and American Lynn Jennings (who took the bronze medal). Only Tulu was able to follow and the two Africans tracked each other stride for stride, setting up a thrilling climax. Tulu made her move just before the bell for the final lap and raced home to victory with the crowd on their feet.
In the end, just five seconds separated the two at the finish line, but in the words of Meyer (now known by her birth name Elana Van Zyl) speaking in Barcelona this week, the race was not over. “Now looking back, I realise the race was not 25 laps – it was the 26th lap that really had an impact,” said Van Zyl of the additional 400m around the track which the two completed side by side, hands joined aloft.
“Our embrace after the race and the victory lap together was a spontaneous gesture,” continued Van Zyl. “I was always taught to persevere in life and to give my best effort. That time I did not win. I was beaten by the better athlete on that day, but for me being able to participate in the Olympics and win a medal was already a great achievement.”
The power of those images which burst onto millions of television screens across the world was immense. The symbolism of the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal arm in arm with the first South African to win an Olympic medal following the 32-year ban on the country, was not lost on viewers, demonstrating the power of sport to heal divisions and past wounds.
“The biggest moment for me was when Elana and Derartu met in the hotel foyer,” reflected the event organiser, former World Athletics Deputy Director of Communications, Anna Legnani. “It was the first time they had seen each other for nine years. It was clear that there was a genuine connection between the two as they greeted and exchanged gifts – they are both wonderful ladies, open and smiling.
“Their connection goes beyond language. Derartu could not speak English in 1992 and she joked that Elana talked so much after the race and she could not understand a word! But to see them this week so happy after so long was absolutely inspiring.”
Van Zyl acknowledged the significant role played by Nelson Mandela at the Games, twenty months before his inauguration as president. “South African athletes were informed just three months before the Games that we would be able to able to compete at the 1992 Olympics, so many athletes were not adequately prepared,” Van Zyl recalled. “Nelson Mandela came to visit us at the Athletes’ Village and he really inspired us – you could feel the energy. And when I set the Half Marathon World Record in Japan a few years later, he called me. He was an exceptional human being.”
Both Tulu and Van Zyl have gone on to take significant leadership roles in sport in their respective countries since their retirement from elite competition. Tulu, cousin to Ejegayehu Dibaba, Tirunesh Dibaba and Genzebe Dibaba, three sisters who likely hold more world titles and records between them than any other family in history, was last year elected as President of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, while Van Zyl is founding director of Endurocad – an influential athletics academy – and ambassador to the Cape Town Marathon.
Internationally acclaimed South African photographer, Roger Sedres, who has worked closely with Van Zyl’s academy, played a key role in bringing the two super-stars back to Barcelona, when he shared his dream last year with former World Athletics Deputy Director of Communications, Anna Legnani.
“South Africa’s nation-building through sport happened long before we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. It was a little girl from Stellenbosch who won everyone’s hearts with her 10 000m race in Barcelona,” Sedres said. “I once told Elana that if I ever won the jackpot I would take her and Deratu to Barcelona and film her running around the track with a South African flag. She was the only Olympic medal winner who didn’t have that opportunity during the Games, as our flag had not yet been finalised.
“It was always my dream to bring Elana and Derartu back to Barcelona, and I mentioned that to (Nice- based media consultant) Anna Legnani, who immediately began to plan to make it happen. I really had hoped to be there, but in the end the timing was not good. It was my daughter’s matric dance this week and I would not have made it back had I gone. She would never have forgiven me!”
The pair had not seen each other for nine years and Tulu had never returned to Barcelona since 1992. The meeting was filled with emotion. Tulu was especially emotional, and her excitement when returning to the Olympic Stadium was palpable, with a little cry of joy as she embraced Van Zyl as they made their entrance together.
“Being the first female black African athlete to win a gold medal was very important, but the most important aspect after the race was friendship. In Ethiopia, every time people mention the Barcelona 1992 final, they also mention Elana – it was a symbol of unity.”
The development of young athletes is close to both Tulu and Van Zyl’s hearts and they have poured time, energy and passion into that mission. “After retiring I shared my experience with many athletes,” said Tulu. “Having been an elite athlete myself allows me to find the right words to motivate the current athletes and I’ve inspired many Ethiopian women to be athletes, Olympians and World champions.”
Similarly, Van Zyl has been mentor, motivator and role-model to many young athletes who have passed through her academy. “Endurocad aims to utilise sport and its values for development, not only in sport but also for personal and academic development,” Van Zyl said from Barcelona. “I feel my role in life is to influence young people in a positive way so they can realise their potential as athletes and in life.”
A poignant moment at the event occurred when Van Zyl and Tulu signed the neutral flag with which Van Zyl ran the legendary “26th lap”, which proved the defining moment of the Barcelona 1992 Games. “The symbol of the power of the values of the Olympics! Friendships, Peace, Perseverance,” were the words Van Zyl inscribed on the flag, which she donated to the Museu Olimpic Joan Antoni Samaranch.
Van Zyl hopes to bring her erst-while rival, now friend, to the Cape Town Marathon in support of the Ethiopian athletes who compete in the event each year and there is every likelihood of this happening in 2023. Moments of deep friendship, of building bridges and spontaneous connection through sport, were ignited in Barcelona in 1992 and the flame burned as brightly in the Spanish sea-port this week.