Ethiopia’s World 5000m champion and Olympic bronze medallist Tirunesh Dibaba, 19, who broke the World Indoor 5000m record four weeks ago in Boston was more than delighted about slicing nearly seven seconds off the previous mark set by countrywoman Berhane Adere.
Breaking a seventeen-month winless streak on the track
In August 2003, the “baby-faced destroyer” shocked the entire world by becoming the youngest ever World Championship gold medallist in Paris, France. However, while she had continued her superior form on the road and cross country, she had been winless on the track (finals only) for the seventeen months since that title win.
“Although I was not able to win, I had exceptional times over the track,” says Dibaba, who has smashed World junior indoor bests and outdoor records at both the 3000m and 5000m in the last two years. “But I knew very well my problem was always a very powerful sprint finish.”
World Indoor record was long in the planning
While this period without a track win did not exactly give her sleepless nights, she was determined to end her barren spell not only by winning, but also by producing something special. “Last year after I had run in Boston, I told my manager [Mark Wetmore] to arrange a World record attempt for me at the same venue the following year,” she confesses. “But I told no one of my intentions and continued preparations.”
Since her second place finish behind Meseret Defar over the 3000m in the 2004 Boston Indoor Games, Dibaba had done her reputation no harm by adding an Olympic 5000m bronze to her CV in Athens. “Many would think that I was lost in the process of trying to make the Ethiopian team for Athens and then getting a medal,” she says. “But my date with Boston was always in the back of my mind.”
Dibaba had been preparing well for the indoor season when she was re-invited to defend her title at the Edinburgh International Cross Country in the Scottish capital. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt me to try the cross country before the Ethiopian trials and so took part in the race.”
The result was a magnificent win over a world class field including World Cross Country long race champion Benita Johnson of Australia. “The win was great, but it unsettled me a bit.”
Already her mond was set on the 22nd Jan Meda International Cross Country (the Ethiopian qualifying meet for the 2005 World Cross Country Championships) in Addis Ababa (last weekend), but she travelled to Boston at the end of January to try and fulfil her promise. “I set out to at least better the area record if not the world record. I was hungry for something.”
“I could have run faster.”
In the Boston Indoor Arena on 29 January, Dibaba got what she came for. She completed the first 1000m of the race in an impressive 2:48 and produced an astonishing 62-second last 400m to stop the clock at 14:32.93, nearly seven seconds better than the old mark.
“My sister helped me as long as she could,” says Tirunesh referring to Olympic 10,000m silver medallist Ejegayehou who finished second in the race. “But when I crossed the finishing line, I felt I still had more in my legs.”
Urged on by a massive Ethiopian support in Boston, Dibaba rose to the challenge especially after hearing the Ethiopian victory song “Tarik Tesera” (sang by Ethiopian vocalist Teddy Afro to commemorate Kenenisa Bekele’s Olympic gold in Athens) playing in the Boston Indoor Arena. “I had slowed down a bit in the middle of the race, but when the song started to play, I just woke up,” recalls Dibaba. “I had watched the music clip on Television many times when the three [Bekele, Gebrselassie, and Sileshi Sihine] run together and something started burning up inside.”
But was it an eye-popping, strength-sapping run like many other World records?
“Not really,” says a confident Dibaba. “Like any indoor race, there were many laps, but other than that, it was an enjoyable experience, although I could have run faster.”
World Cross Country first, and then World outdoor record
Her epic performance in Boston has opened up the normally shy Dibaba, who is already eying the outdoor 5000m mark. “Last year, I thought I had the chance to break the outdoor record, but Elvan [Abeylegesse] snatched it,” she recalls. “But this will be my year and although nothing has been finalised yet, I want to try it again later in the summer.”
But first thing is first. Dibaba, who runs for the Prisons Corrections Police club in Addis Ababa and holds the military rank of Sergeant, says that her first port of call is St-Etienne/St-Galmier, France and winning gold in the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships. “I am in the best form of my life and I am not scared of anyone at the moment,” says Dibaba. “Last year, I made tactical mistakes and lost to Edith (Masai), but that will not happen this year.”
Dibaba certainly knew what she was talking about this weekend in the 22nd Jan Meda Cross Country International in Addis Ababa where she tore apart a very strong field that included last year’s World short race bronze medallist Werkinesh Kidane and World Junior champion Meselech Melkamu, as she powered home to an impressive in 8km long race. “The race was not that difficult,” she said after qualifying for France. “I am happy with the result and will continue my preparations for the World Cross.”
Her summer will be pretty much occupied trying to qualify for the track World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, but she admitted that another crack at the outdoor World 5000m record ‘would be great’. “Nothing has been finalized yet, but I want to try it again,” says Dibaba.
Dibaba knows that she needs to better her own personal best for the distance (14:30.88 and eighth fastest of all time) by nearly seven seconds. “It would really be difficult, but with the help of God, it would be worth the try.”
I want to be Ethiopia’s most successful Olympian
Still only 19, Dibaba has set her own standards very high in the coming years. “I want to become Ethiopia’s most successful Olympian,” she says.
Currently, that record is shared by Miruts Yifter, and Dibaba’s cousin Derartu Tulu, who each have two gold medals and one bronze at the world’s showpiece event. Tulu also shares the record for most appearances at the Games by an Ethiopian, four, with 1968 Olympic Marathon champion Mamo Wolde. “I want to run until my legs give up on me,” says Dibaba. “I feel that I have five more Olympics in me.”
While winning her first track gold medal is her immediate priority in Beijing 2008, Dibaba does not hide the fact that her ultimate dream is to win an Olympic Marathon gold. “I know that it will not happen in the next ten years because I want to win everything on the track first,” she says. “But then just like Derartu (Tulu), I want to run to turn to the Marathon full-time.”
Her love for the longest and most punishing distance in the Olympic Games is shared by many Ethiopian runners who are proud of the country’s rich history of success in the distance. Ethiopians have won five (four male and one female) Olympic marathon gold medals in the country’s forty-eight-year participation in the Games.
And although she is yet to turn twenty, young Dibaba says she wants to discover the happiness of winning an Olympic Marathon. “I have been wandering what it felt when Gezhagne [Abera] won in Sydney,” she says. “I also want to experience what he did.”
For now at least, Dibaba is shying away from her lifetime objectives and instead focusing her attentions on the World Cross Country Championships in France. But make no mistake that this is a young girl whose ambitions know no end!
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF