When Tirunesh Dibaba beat a world class field to become the youngest ever World Championship gold medalist over the 5000m in Paris 2003, her victory was called the surprise of the championships. “I competed in Paris only because I had the ‘A’ standard,” recalls Dibaba. “No one expected me to win. There was no pressure from anywhere. I just went for it.”
The likes of Berhane Adere, Gabriela Szabo, Marta Dominguez, and other top runners were preoccupied watching out for each other when suddenly the-then 18 year and 80 days aged runner flew past them like a flash. And before they all knew what had happened, Dibaba was celebrating another gold medal for Ethiopia in the most unexpected of circumstances. “All of them were looking at each other and no one was focusing on the finish line,” she says. “I had nothing to lose. I just went for it and was surprised that I had won.”
Her victory in Paris marked the beginning of a new era in distance running with Emperor Haile Gebrselassie and Queen Derartu Tulu giving way to Kenenisa Bekele and Dibaba, the crown Prince and Princess respectively. But unlike Bekele who has justified his thrown by winning Olympic gold and adding three more World Cross Country doubles, Dibaba has struggled until this year.
An inconsistent 2004
After her exploits in Paris, Dibaba’s credentials as a world beater came unstuck after she was defeated twice by Meseret Defar in the 8th All-African Games, and then again in the 1st Afro-Asian Games. “I was a bit tired after Paris and did not train well,” she says. “I was not ready to run those races.”
Although she defeated her cousin and childhood mentor Derartu Tulu in the 2004 Great North Cross in Newcastle, England, she lost out to Werknesh Kidane in the Ethiopian World Cross trials and again to Edith Masai in the short race in the 2004 World Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium.
A World Junior 5000m record in the outdoor season went some way to consoling her after yet another defeat in the Ethiopian championships this time to Meselech Melkamu, but the most important outcome of the 2004 outdoor season was qualification for her very first Olympics in Athens. “I was so happy when I looked at the clock in Bergen,” she said of her 14:30.88 finishing time for second place behind former Ethiopian-born Elvan Abeylegesse’s World record.
But in Athens, bad tactics prevented Tirunesh Dibaba from picking up the gold medal she had seen her cousin Tulu win twice in her illustrious career. “I was a bit overweight and after following Elvan [Abeylegesse] at the early part of the race, I just could not follow the rest at the end,” she says. “I was not disappointed. I had learned my lesson.”
In a league of her own in 2005
But this year, Tirunesh Dibaba has been running at the highest level. She started the year with an impressive cross country win in Edinburgh beating Australia’s World Cross Country long course champion Benita Johnson, and her (Tirunesh’s) sister Ejegayehou. Three weeks later, she smashed the World 5000m Indoor record in Boston, slicing nearly seven seconds off Adere’s previous mark.
And to cap her cross country season, she destroyed a host of fellow East African runners on her way to a short and long course double at the World Cross Country Championships in France. “Both races were not as hard as I had expected,” she said at the time after becoming the first woman after Ireland Sonia O’Sullivan to win World Cross double since the competition was introduced in 1998.
Two weeks after her epic victories in the French Loire region, Dibaba was back on the road in California, USA tying Paula Radcliffe’s World road best in the Carlsbad 5k**.
Outdoors, she set two world leading times on the track over the 5000m in New York and Rome, the latter in which she defeated Berhane Adere and Olympic 5000m champion Meseret Defar to signal the top form she is in, in the run-up to Helsinki. “The competition was tough in Rome, but I got my tactics correct,” she says.
“I am scared of no one”
Dibaba’s knowledge of tactics and her ability to strike when and how has certainly improved over the last two years. “When I won in Paris, everybody called me the “little girl”,” she says. “I am no longer that little girl. I have matured and certainly am afraid of no one during competition.”
Maturity for Dibaba has meant seeking new areas of distance running to challenge and this summer, she ran her first 10,000m to an outstanding effect in Sollentuna, Sweden, where she set a world leading time of 30:15.67.
“I had initially wanted to pace for my sister Ejegayehou since she wanted to obtain the A standard for Helsinki,” Dibaba explains. “But a week before the race, my manager (Mark Whetmore) suggested that I go for a sub-30 minute race. I had nothing to lose. I just agreed.”
And if it hadn’t been for the heavy rain that fell in Sollentuna, Dibaba might have just dipped under the elusive mark managed so far only by China’ Wang Junxia during her World record run of 29:31.68, twelve years ago. “The first thing I thought after the race was that I managed to run 10,000m and had finished it,” she giggled.
Childish innocence will not work anymore
Until this year, Dibaba attacked every race she entered with childish innocence. “I used to believe that since I had nothing to lose, I might as well do my best and not worry about anything else,” she says. “But this year, everything is different. I am starting to feel the pressure.”
The reason for her feeling “pressured” is the huge expectation of her Ethiopian fans. “People in Ethiopia believe that anything except gold is defeat,” she says. “Nowadays whenever I think of defeat, I feel that I need to win.”
Going for the double in Helsinki
At the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Helsinki, Finland (6 - 14 Aug), Dibaba confirms that she will run both the 5000m and 10,000m and expects both races to be the hardest she has run in her life so far.
“There is Meseret (Defar) over the 5000m and Berhane (Adere) in the 10,000m,” she speaks of her main rivals. “And there is Isabella (Ochichi) and many others who will run very well.”
“But I chose to run both races because I can win them both. I am ready to make history in Helsinki.”
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF
**tied Paula Radcliffe, Flora Light Women’s 5K, London, GBR, September 14, 2003; breaks course record, 14:53, Isabella Ochichi, 2004. NB. uncertified course - Lornah Kiplagat - 14:47, Monday 28 March 2004 in Brunssum, The Netherlands.