Feature28 Feb 2015

Ghribi will carry the hopes of a nation in Beijing


Habiba Ghribi celebrates her steeplechase victory at the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich (© Jean-Pierre Durand)

It may have been her first ever race on the boards, but when steeplechase specialist Habiba Ghribi won the 3000m at the Sainsbury’s Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham earlier this month, she ran with the confidence of a seasoned indoor runner.

A mid-race surge carried her from the back of the pack up to the leaders. She then cranked up the pace over the final kilometre to leave behind an experienced field of middle-distance specialists, winning in an outright Tunisian record of 8:46.61.

“That was fun,” said the 30-year-old in assessment of her first indoor race. “In 16 years of running, I’ve never done an indoor season, but for me this year I want to change.

“I have a new coach and I’m working a bit differently now. I’m doing this mainly to help prepare for the summer season. I’m happy with this result, but it was a little bit difficult. It’s a lot different to running the steeplechase outdoors. But it’s good, I’m happy.”

Ghribi tends to hit her top form much later in the summer and always peaks when it matters most, having broken her own national record in all five of her appearances at global championships.

So if Ghribi is in this kind of form now, her rivals should take note.

Steady progress to global medals

Ghribi began her athletics career with a focus on cross-country running and has represented her nation four times at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. But in 2005 she switched to the steeplechase, coinciding with the event’s introduction to major championships.

Despite chopping 20 seconds off her PB, her time of 9:51.49 wasn’t enough to progress from the heats at the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki. Three years later, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she reduced her national record to 9:25.50 in the heats and became the first Tunisian woman to make an Olympic final.

Her progression continued in 2009, finishing sixth at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin with another national record, 9:12.52. Two years later at the World Championships in Daegu, she ran 9:11.97 to take the silver medal, becoming the first woman from her country to make it on to the podium at the IAAF World Championships.

She replicated that feat at the 2012 Olympics, clocking another national record of 9:08.37 to take the silver medal, once again producing her best performance on the global stage.

Injury ruined her chances of competing at the 2013 World Championships, but now under the guidance of Jean-Michel Dirringer, Ghribi believes that the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 will be her moment to win gold.

“Constantin Nourescu had been my coach for 15 years, so it was difficult to change,” said Ghribi. “He is old now and it was getting difficult for him to come with me to every race. But he helped me find another coach, and I started training with Jean-Michel in December. I have a lot of confidence in him because he’s done very well with Mehdi Baala and Bouabdellah Tahri.

“I hope I can win gold,” she added of her ambitions in the Chinese capital. “I’ve worked very hard this winter in the hope of taking the title at the next World Championships and Olympics. If I can do that, I’d be very happy.

“In Moscow I was injured. My body was still recovering at the start of 2014, but I finished my season very well, winning the last two Diamond Leagues. For me it was important to win this race (in Birmingham) and to start this year better than last year.”

Making history

Tunisia isn’t known as a hotbed of athletics talent.

The most accomplished athlete from the north African country is Mohammed Gammoudi, the 1968 Olympic 5000m champion. Race walker Hatem Ghoula was the first Tunisian athlete to win a medal at the World Championships after taking bronze in the 20km event in 2007.

Ghribi, meanwhile, has already made her own piece of history by becoming the first Tunisian athlete to win medals at both the World Championships and the Olympics. She is also the first Tunisian woman in any sport to win an Olympic medal. But with that comes added responsibility.

“I was the first woman to win a medal at the World Championships or Olympics and that was special for my country,” she said. “But because of that, I feel more pressure to win gold. If I did that, it would be truly special for Tunisia.”

Such success could bring with it some major changes in Tunisia, a country which no longer has any usable athletics tracks.

“Since the revolution in my country a few years ago, there are no tracks to train on, which makes it difficult for young athletes,” she said. “But we have a new president and I’m hopeful that things will change.”

Undoubtedly one of the gold medal favourites for the world title, it’s also not inconceivable that Ghribi could challenge the world record. After all, her PB is less than 10 seconds shy of Gulnara Galkina’s 8:58.81.

“I don’t want to speak about the world record,” Ghribi said with an infectious smile and a giggle. “But why not?”

Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF