Dibaba (37) holds off Defar in Stuttgart (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Dibaba and Bekele: Different Route, Same Paycheque - IAAF Magazine

Double World 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele’s ‘big’ IAAF Golden League ambitions ended as early as the first meeting in Oslo, but Tirunesh Dibaba held on until the final meet before taking a massive pay cut in Berlin. Ethiopia’s two distance running stars had very contrasting summers but they both collected USD 83,333 for five golden league victories out of a maximum six.

By Elshadai Negash

Even before Kenenisa Bekele travelled to the Norwegian capital Oslo, he knew that he had blown some of his Golden League aspirations.

“It was my first race of the track season,” he said. “I had no chance to evaluate my training performance in competition and it was always a risk coming into the Golden League. I should have run some races as training before the Golden League.”

In fact, Bekele had missed many more training sessions after winning his fifth world short and long course double in Fukuoka, Japan to help prepare his sister Dinknesh’s wedding. The consequence was a hands-up defeat to Kenyan Isaac Songok in the 5000m at the Exxon Mobil Bislett Games in Oslo.

Having looked very heavy-legged for much of the twelve-and-half laps of competition, Bekele launched his trademark finishing kick at the beginning of the closing lap. But he was found wanting when Songok responded with a bigger kick.

“I helped arrange for my sister’s wedding,” he said. “I wanted to run in the Ethiopian Championships, but I could not because of the wedding. I missed some training and did not have a chance to evaluate myself.” 

While Bekele was busy struggling with Songok, his compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba entered her 5000m in Oslo with World record ambitions, but crossed the finish line “dropped into the jackpot hunt.”

Having evaded the challenge of her sister Ejegayehou and other Ethiopians, the younger Dibaba crossed the finish line some six seconds short of her target, although she sliced three seconds off her own personal best in 14:30.40.

“I went for the World record in Oslo,” she says. “I would have broken the record if I had run the three laps faster than I did. After running a personal best in Oslo, many Ethiopians both at home and in Norway encouraged me to run the entire Golden League series. They were saying that Kenenisa [Bekele] and I will do the country proud and that lifted my confidence. When Kenenisa lost, I knew the pressure was on me to keep Ethiopian interests alive. I am still surprised when I reflect on how my season has progressed.”

Little did she anticipate what was waiting for her. Enter compatriot and never-say-die runner Meseret Defar!

Defar smashed Elvan Abeylegesse’s World 5000m record two days after Dibaba’s failed attempt in Oslo and much against the Ethiopian public opinion, she too embarked on winning a share of the first USD 500,000 reserved for winners of five Golden League meets.

All three Ethiopian Golden League contenders quietly prepared for their upcoming challenge in Addis Ababa shunning both public and media intrusion when the series took a month-long break in June.

When it returned to Paris, all eyes were once again on Bekele and his response to the awakening in Oslo. His reply couldn’t have been more vociferous in the French capital clocking a World leading time of 12:51.32 to handily beat Kenyan Edwin Soi.

“Since it was a Golden League meet, I was happy about the win,” he says. “If not, there would have been nothing that angered or upsets me. I always try my best. Many people know me because I win most of the time.” 

The women’s 5000m turned out to be a greater spectacle of distance running. After a tactical cat-and-mouse affair for eleven-and-half laps, Defar surged forward at the bell and looked comfortable going into the home straight ahead of Gelete Burka, Berhane Adere, and a struggling Dibaba.

Defar changed gear once again to stride clear of Adere with 300m to go, but Dibaba quickly made ground to draw close to her archrival. The pair ran the race of their lives heading towards the finish where Dibaba just nicked it ahead of Defar to continue her Golden League march.

“I was almost fooled that day,” remembers Dibaba. “At the bell, Meseret [Defar], Berhane [Adere], and Gelete [Burka] all ran past me and it was God’s will more than anything that saved me that day. I would have regretted taking part if I had lost that day.”

A week later in Rome, the two women came up against each other at the Stadio Olimpico, but there was no repeat of the Paris showdown as Dibaba easily took victory in 14:52.37. Their compatriot Bekele faced a much-difficult challenge with double World 3000m Steeplechase champion Saif Said Shaheen, Songok, and former World 5000m champion Eliud Kipchoge in the field.

But once he stormed clear with 150m to go before the finish, his rivals had little chance of matching his newly-regained finishing speed. Bekele sweated profusely on a warm night in Rome, but reaped his rewards in another sub-12.50 clocking.

“I sweated a lot because of the heat and humidity,” he said. “It was a strong competition and finishing times were fast, but that was not why I sweated a lot.”

The IAAF Golden League took another month-long break due to continental championships. But after Defar gained revenge for her defeats to Dibaba in the African Championships, their rivalry had reached beyond anything seen in women distance running.

Their races were equated to a war between two vengeful enemies by the national press, although neither admitted to the media of their strange relationship. The critics and headline writers eased up a bit when Defar pulled out of the fourth meeting in Zürich. Dibaba easily dispatched the challenges of Kenyan Edith Masai to take victory and join Asafa Powell, Sanya Richards, and Jeremy Wariner in the hunt for the bigger share of the jackpot.

When Defar returned a week later in Brussels, she came with the objective of lowering her own World 5000m record. And when the race pacemaker left the scene of battle, Defar hit the front and led the race for large parts. At one point, Defar even asked Dibaba to help her with some front-running, but Dibaba stuck to her own tactics.

“I knew she was going for the World record,” Dibaba says. “I had to destabilize her racing plans by varying the pace before kicking in the last lap. It was a different kind of a race compared to the others, but it was not easiest.”

Defar’s World record ambitions and the subsequent fast pace helped both runners run under 14:35 for the second time in the season with Dibaba taking victory in 14:30.63.

With five down and only the DKB-ISTAF Berlin 2006 to go, Dibaba secured a share of the smaller USD 500,000, while the bigger prize waited in the German capital.

The Dibaba-Defar battle might have taken the headlines off Bekele’s own Golden League hunt, but the 24-year-old also stayed in contention with victories in Zürich and Brussels.

Although he suffered his third defeat of the season in July, Bekele returned to his invincible self in Zürich and even had the luxury of attempting a World 5000m record in Brussels. Fatigue and an overcrowded racing programme prevented a time anything closer to the elusive 12:37.35 mark, but his winning time of 12:48.09 nonetheless again improved his own world lead.

“I felt that I could have broken the World record that day,” he says. “I thought I had it in me. But I was not lucky with the weather. It was a bit chilly for my liking. But my condition was perfect to break the World record.”

Days before the penultimate race in Berlin, Dibaba was focused on the challenge ahead, although she fully understood what lay ahead. “I am ready for victory,” she declared.

On the other hand, Bekele was relaxed as he hoped to confirm his payday of at least USD 83,333. If anyone had thought he would be a bag of nerves, he did not show it when making easy work of beating brother Tariku and compatriot Abraham Cherkose.

But Dibaba was not quite that fortunate. On the day that Richards, Powell, and Wariner each earned USD 250,000, the Ethiopian took a significant reduction from her jackpot share as she agonizingly lost to Defar.

Defar needed a big effort to deny Dibaba the big prize. The Olympic 5000m champion had to run the final lap in 56.2 seconds. In monetary terms, Dibaba was denied the sort of money to buy a large plot of land at the heart of Addis Ababa to build a 10-storey building or pay annual primary school fees for 5000 children in Ethiopia.

“Of course, I was disappointed,” she says. “It is not only the money, but I am upset about losing the honour.” 

Dibaba put on a brave face to join the other Golden League jackpot winners on the podium in Berlin, but where was Bekele?

“I had forgotten about it,” he admits. “I was rushing from the post-race press conference to doping control. Although I was given an invitation, I thought I would be called by announcers. At the time, I was upset about it. I would have been more upset if I shared a bigger share of the jackpot and not appeared to receive my share.”

Published in 2006 Yearbook