Tirunesh Dibaba completed part three of what was not only a great day for Ethiopia but a great day for the Dibaba family this afternoon as she reclaimed her World Cross Country crown, which comes with a US$30,000 prize, in thrilling style.
Dibaba’s victory over the 8km race means she joins USA’s Lynn Jennings and her cousin, Derartu Tulu, as a winner of three long course titles following her previous victories in 2005 and 2006. With her short course win in 2005 and the junior title in 2004, she now joins Grete Waitz of Norway with five individual golds from these championships, and Worknesh Kidane as a winner of eight individual medals.
Together with all her team titles, Dibaba has now won 14 World Cross Country golds altogether, more than any other athlete. And she’s still only 22.
Taking inspiration from her younger sister Genzebe, the 17-year-old who won the junior race just an hour earlier, Dibaba shrugged off any doubts about her fitness in the final 400m of a gruelling race to leap from fourth to first on the craggy hillside of Haggis Knowe, before unleashing her trademark finishing kick that brought her home over the soggy mud in 25:10, five seconds ahead of her teammate Mestawet Tufa.
Linet Masai, the 2007 junior champion from Kenya, claimed the bronze in 25:18 but with Ethiopians in sixth (Gelete Burka) and ninth (Meselech Melkamu), it was the women in green and yellow who claimed the senior women’s team title for the seventh consecutive time and the ninth time in the last 10 years. Kenya were in silver (22pts) and Australia (84pts) secured team bronze.
For Dibaba it was not only the team victory which mattered, however, not even the personal triumph, but her part in a family affair that goes back to 1995 when Tulu won the first of her World Cross crowns.
“I’m aware that my aunt has won this race three times so I am very happy to have done the same thing,” said a smiling, if mud-splattered, Dibaba afterwards. “And my younger sister was first earlier today so it was partly to match her that I dug in and put everything I had into the win.”
Indeed, the manner of Dibaba’s victory was little short of remarkable. With less than half a lap to go she looked, not only to have lost the race, but to be out of the medals, her much publicised stomach problems seemingly afflicting her again.
But summoning some unknown reserves of strength she clawed past Masai and pulled herself back into touch with Tufa and Gelete Burka before striking for gold.
“I felt a stitch in the middle of the race and that’s when I fell back,” she admitted afterwards. “But I recovered from that and was able to move to the front.”
It was the first time in the entire race that she had been so prominent as in the early stages she was content to stalk the leaders. Surprisingly, the first to show were from the host nation as Liz and Hayley Yelling moved swiftly to the front in the first lap, apparently keen to take what little chance they had to fly the flag for Britain.
Amy Hastings of the USA was also in evidence early on but large clutches of Kenyans and Ethiopians were never far away. Burka, in a grey hat and long black sleaves, looked comfortable just behind the leaders, as did Kenya’s Priscah Cherono (formerly Jeleting), the 2006 silver medallist.
By the end of the second lap it was these two plus Tufa who led a long line of athletes past the rain-drenched crowd as the Britons and Americans began to struggle. But it was on the next circuit, the third, and the first to include the course’s one testing incline that the race really began.
Burka, a winner of the Edinburgh IAAF Permit race on this course for the last years, moved to the front. “On Sunday, I will use the experience I have on this course,” she said a few days ago. And that’s what she appeared to be doing as she led a group of nine or 10 plus Australia’s Benita Johnson, a former champion, who was hanging on the back.
It was at this stage that Masai first began to show and she, Tufa and Burka moved away at the end of the penultimate lap with Dibaba, clearly visible in her long white sleeves, chasing hard about five metres behind.
From then on it was all about these four as they battled out a stirring last lap in which the medals were in doubt until the very last bend of the twisting course.
First Burka made her move, pulling Tufa with her as Masai dropped back allowing Dibaba to catch up. These two appeared be set for a battle for bronze as Burka stretched her lead, opening a 20 metre gap on Tufa that looked decisive.
But Tufa wasn’t finished and as the runners negotiated the penultimate tight bend in front of the grandstand she began to make up the ground. Behind her, Dibaba was dragging Masai back into the reckoning and by the time they hit the base of the hill for the last time there were only 10 metres separating the four.
Burka had clearly pushed too hard too early as she blew up on the foothills of the Haggis Knowe, destined to finish sixth, 25 seconds behind Dibaba. In contrast, Dibaba was suddenly revived and the World 10,000m champion skipped past her teammate, drove beyond Tufa, crested the top of the hill and unleashed her finishing spurt.
“Tirunesh has better finishing speed than me, but I am happy with my second place,” said the resigned Tufa afterwards.
“Our victory brings us great joy today,” said Dibaba. “We’ve been preparing for this for a long time. Cross country is very important to us. We wanted to bring a strong team and do very well here.”
She was talking about her country. But it equally applies to the family clan.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF