Cross Challenge on 24 October 2021

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Medals and Diplomas for the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON

Mohamed El Ouafi – the first African Marathon Champion in Olympic History


Traditionally, each finisher in the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON is decorated with a medal. Over the years, these medals have commemorated remarkable figures and events from the history of marathon running. Having depicted ancient Greek runners in the first years, since 1978 the medals have been dedicated to former Olympic marathon champions. The effigies of Olympic champions also embellish the diplomas which are mailed to all finishers. The purpose is to posthumously honour the pioneers of marathon running. After all, they literally are the forerunners, and in some cases, idols of today’s popular marathon boom.

There have been four exceptions, though: for the 25th BERLIN-MARATHON, in 1998, a jubilee medal was designed, while the 1999 version showed the head of Ronaldo da Costa (Brazil), and in 2000 the effigy of Tegla Loroupe (Kenya), after both had set new world records in Berlin. And in 2001, too, Japanese winner Naoko Takahashi ran another world record, and at the finish was able to receive a medal donning her face – a pre-programmed world record, so to say. This year, the real,- BERLIN-MARATHON goes far back memory lane: its medals and diplomas will show Mohamed El Ouafi, the 1928 Olympic marathon champion.

Here is an overview of all Berliner Marathon medals:

1974 - 77: Ancient Greek runners
1978: Kitei Son (Korea/1936)
1979: Spiridon Louis (Griechenland/1896)
1980: Waldemar Cierpinski (DDR/1976 und 80)
1981: Frank Shorter (USA/1972)
1982: Hannes Kolehmainen (Finnland/1920)
1983: Alain Mimoun (Frankreich/1956)
1984: Abebe Bikila (Äthiopien/1960 u. 64)
1985: Michel Théato (Frankreich/1900)
1986: Juan Zabala (Argentinien/1932)
1987: John Hayes (USA/1908)
1988: Emil Zatopek (Tschechoslowakei/1952)
1989: Mamo Wolde (Äthiopien/1968)
1990: Joan Benoit (USA/1984)
1991: Carlos Lopes (Portugal/1984)
1992: Delfo Cabrera (Argentinien/1948)
1993: Kenneth McArthur (Südafrika/1912)
1994: Gelindo Bordin (Italien/1988)
1995: Rosa Mota (Portugal/1988)
1996: Spiridon Louis (Griechenland/1896)
1997: Waldemar Cierpinski (DDR/1976 und 80)
1998: Together weve run into history
1999: Ronaldo da Costa (Brasilien/Weltrekordler)
2000: Tegla Loroupe (Kenia/Weltrekordlerin)
2001: Naoko Takahashi (Japan/Weltrekord)
2002: Mohamed El Ouafi (Frankreich/1928)

Every running enthusiast knows how Abebe Bikila’s bare feet, padding along the Appian Way, brought him victory in the 1960 Olympics. Few know that the first African to win the Olympic Marathon had done so 32 years earlier in Amsterdam, running for France.

Mohamed El Ouafi was born near Biskra, 300 km south-east of Algiers and on the northern fringes of the Sahara Desert, on 18 October 1898. He farmed date trees, but took up running when he was 23, and soon afterwards moved to France. He was running for a Parisian club during the build-up towards the 1924 Olympics, to be held in Paris. The marathon course was 42.195 km, which thereafter became the standard marathon distance.

The race was on 13th July. During May and June El Ouafi competed at distances from 15 km – 30 km, at which he was consistently beaten by the French champion, Jean Manhes. Manhes dropped out of the Olympic marathon trial, and El Ouafi won in 2:50:53. He went on to finish 7th in the Olympic Marathon, a race completed by only 30 of the 58 starters.

He returned to Algeria and ran dispatches for the French Army during 1926 in their campaign against Abd-al-Karim’s insurgency movement, spreading from Spanish Morocco. Running long distances under tough conditions developed his endurance capabilities, and he returned to France in 1927 to prepare for the next Olympic Games in Amsterdam.

After a winter of cross-country he recorded 2:18:30 to win a 35 km road race on 1st April 1928. In the French Olympic marathon trial on 8th July, held over a course of 38.5 km, he won in 2:20:03. Four weeks later, on 5th August, he lined up in the stadium with 67 others to contest the Olympic Marathon for the second time.

El Ouafi proved a fine judge of pace. He was content to trail the American Joie Ray through half way, before the course “made a big loop over very open country”. Contemporary reports (The Times, London, 6 August 1928) praised the “remarkable persistence” of the Japanese pair of Kennematsu Yamada and Seiichiro Tsuda who led as they retraced their steps back towards the stadium after 30 km. Ray went clear at 35 km as El Ouafi, trailed by eventual silver medallist Manuel Plaza of Chile, moved steadily up the field. Yamada regained the lead from a tiring Ray at 38 km but three kilometres from the finish El Ouafi passed Yamada for a clear run back into the stadium. Entering to a trumpet fanfare “the dark-skinned little man in the French Olympic colours” surprised the waiting crowd with “a display of steady and apparently easy going running”.

After his Olympic victory El Ouafi left his job as a turner with the Paris works of Renault and turned professional. He sought out racing opportunities in the United States and his most emphatic win came in an indoor marathon at Madison Square Garden in New York. He defeated the former Olympic silver medallist Juri Lossman, as well as Arthur Newton and Willie Kohlemainen, recording 2:44:56 and finishing 400 m ahead of Joie Ray (5th in Amsterdam). He returned home with winnings of $ 4000.

Hugh Jones

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