ATLANTA (AP) _ The women's equality movement among African distance runners has claimed another gold medal.

Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, competing in only her fourth marathon, ran away from her more seasoned opponents Sunday for a surprising victory in the women's Olympic marathon. She finished in 2 hours, 26 minutes and 5 seconds.

Roba, the first African woman to win a medal in the marathon since the event became part of the Olympics in 1984, dropped to her knees and kissed the track after crossing the finish line to the cheers of a near-capacity crowd at 85,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

She had enough energy left to take a victory lap, waving an Ethiopian flag and bowing to the crowd.

While African men have come to dominate distance running, the culture in many African nations discourages women from competing in athletics. But this year, African women are medal threats in several events.

Roba, at 23 one of the youngest women in the race, said she became interested in long distance running as a teen-ager, reading about the great Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila.

The policewoman expected a wild celebration in her homeland after her victory. ``I hope that people will rally throughout the city,'' she said.

Roba's time was three minutes faster than her previous best. She finished two minutes ahead of 1992 gold medalist Valentina Yegorova of Russia, who won the silver in 2:28:05.

The victory margin was the largest in the brief history of the Olympic event.

Yuko Arimori of Japan, the 1992 silver medalist, was third in 2:28:39, capping a remarkable comeback. She left the sport after the 1992 and didn't race for three years, undergoing surgery on both heels in the process.

Anne Marie Lauck was the top U.S. finisher, 10th at 2:31:30. Another American, Linda Somers, was 29th at 2:36:54. The third U.S. runner among the 86 entrants, Jenny Spangler, didn't finish.

Roba was a distant 19th at last year's world championships and never broke 2:30 until this year. But she showed evidence of a possible breakthrough earlier this year when she set an Ethiopian record at 2:29:05 in Rome.

The start of the 26.2-mile race was moved up to 7 a.m. EDT to avoid the summer heat. An early morning rainstorm stopped just before the start of the race, and the weather stayed cool under overcast skies throughout the marathon.

The hilly course began and ended at Olympic Stadium. It ran north past Martin Luther King's tomb, then to Oglethorpe University, where the runners made a U-turn and headed past the restaurants and night clubs of the Buckhead district and back through downtown.

Uta Pippig of Germany, winner of the last three Boston Marathons, gambled by taking the lead virtually from the start.

Pippig led by 25 seconds at the five-mile mark, but as she reached the biggest climb of the course she began to struggle, and a pack of five runners passed her in the 11th mile. Pippig dropped out four miles from the finish.

Pippig's early charge had no effect on Roba's strategy. ``I was going to take care of my job,'' Roba said. ``It didn't bother me at all.''

Shortly after the 11th mile, Roba burst away and the rest of the runners couldn't maintain contact. As she widened the distance, Roba periodically looked behind her but eventually lost sight of those trying in vain to keep up.

At several points, she smiled and waved at spectators waving the Ethiopian flag. Once she veered to the curb, touched the flag as she ran and brought her fingers to her lips in a kiss.

Roba led the final 15 miles of the race.

``I figured out as soon as the race started, maybe seven or eight miles in, that I would win,'' she said.