Ethiopia has produced many talented distance runners down the years, but no two of them have reached peak at exactly at the same time as Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba.
The track rivalry between the ‘Dueling Ds’, the Olympic champion Defar and World champion Dibaba, on the international track circuit last summer was one of the stand-out features of the outdoor season. Dibaba edged Defar four victories to three in their 2006 head-to-heads, but Defar still has the better of her compatriot in their career meetings with thirteen victories to Dibaba’s nine.
Most significantly after staying in the hunt for the IAAF Golden League Jackpot for the first five races, Dibaba took a massive pay-cut when losing to Defar in the penultimate leg of the series in Berlin, Germany.
Yet perhaps the over riding memory of their frequent neck n’ neck last lap sprint battles throughout the summer were their two meetings at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart over 3000m and 5000m, with each taking one last gasp win over the other. Dibaba took first blood on 9 September over the longer distance (16:04.77 to 16:04.78), in part making-up for her Berlin loss, while the next day Defar struck back and snatched the 3000m victory (8:34.22 to 8:34.74).
Dibaba - “It still pains my heart to remember that race” in Berlin
Dibaba had bestowed high standards on herself following an incredible 2005 where she won double gold at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in St. Etienne/St. Galmier, France where she won the long and short course titles, and the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Helsinki over the 5000m and 10,000m.
“It was always going to be tough repeating what I did in 2005,” she said. “I knew that after that year, all my rivals were preparing for me.”
Dibaba began the year with defeat when she went down to compatriot Gelete Burka in the IAAF permit cross country race in Edinburgh, UK but recovered on the indoor tracks to earn victories in Boston and Birmingham.
“The cross country season was very difficult for me,” she said. “First, I lost to Gelete (Burka) in Edinburgh and then I was ill before Fukuoka (World XC champs). I struggled in the long race, but at the end, I won comfortably. In the short race, I was too ill to continue and dropped out.”
Dibaba cancelled the entire domestic season in Ethiopia to prepare for international track meets and admits that she had never planned to chase the Golden League Jackpot.
“I went to Oslo to attempt the World record,” she says. “I did not manage that, but when I heard everyone in Ethiopia talking that I had started the Jackpot chase, I just couldn’t let everyone down. I was thrown in the chase. I never planned for it.”
The 21-year old always looked the one to falter under the challenge of compatriot Defar in the opening five meets, but after her world lead in Oslo (this was bettered by Defar when she broke the World record in New York), she impressively won the following four races in Paris, Rome, Zurich, and Brussels.
“After Brussels, I was feeling pains in many parts of my body,” she admits. “I held on because I knew I could not fail now. It is too much to ask of someone to run three 5000m races in three weeks.”
Although she had said that she was fit and ready for the penultimate race in Berlin, Dibaba now claims that she was never in top shape. “I was not confident of winning before the race when I knew Meseret was running,” she says. “I knew that I had to be in top shape to beat her. I was not in top shape and confidence going into the Berlin meet.”
Yet, Dibaba put up a brave fight when losing to Defar in front of 48,000 expectant fans in the Berlin Olympic stadium. “It still pains my heart to remember that race,” says Dibaba. “I gave it all I had. I run the last lap in 57seconds [57.2 seconds]. It was a tough defeat to take.”
Dibaba recovered the following weekend to win the first of a double-header between the two women at the World Athletics Final but again lost to Defar the following day over the 3000m.
“I never meant to revenge Berlin in any of those races,” she says. “My manager had advised me to run in these races to accumulate ranking points.”
Defar - “I had planned to break the World record for a long time”
Defar began her season with two near-misses at World indoor records in Boston and Stuttgart, but easily defended her World Indoor 3000m title at the expense of Russia’s World record holder Liliya Shobukhova in Moscow.
“The Russian athletes tried to intimidate me before the race,” she says. “I just smiled back and did not care about their psychological games. I knew I could win the race and I am happy to have done that.”
Defar enjoyed an eventful spring when setting an unofficial World best at 5km in Carlsbad, California, USA and then narrowly missing the Addis Ababa stadium record by two seconds for the 5000m at the Ethiopian track Championships in Addis Ababa.
The 23-year-old opened her international track season with a comfortable victory in Doha and surprised many in New York Grand Prix when smashing Elvan Abeylegesse’s 5000m World record to win the race in 14:24.53.
“I had planned to break the World record for a long time,” she said. “It was not a surprise as many thought. I thank God for making it happen.”
After setting the World record, Defar immediately declared her ambitions in Paris to start pursuing a share of the IAAF Golden League jackpot, but was foiled in her first meet by Dibaba.
“I went there expecting a lot,” she says. “I was not happy. To be honest, no one can defeat easily and I am no exception.”
The defeat in Paris came after an impressive winning streak of twelve races, but her hopes of bouncing back to winning ways ended when she fell ill before her next race in Rome. “I knew that I could never win in Rome because I was ill (flu),” she says. “At the end, I am happy about finishing second.”
Defar made a happy return in Bambous, Mauritius when she finally defeated Dibaba in another close encounter at the African Championships. “People are surprised that I completed at the African championships because I had a very busy season,” she says. “The African Championships are very important for me. I had penned them as part of my season from the very beginning.”
But after choosing not to run in Zurich, Defar suffered more agony in Brussels when she lost to Dibaba yet again. “I was more upset about not breaking the World record,” she says. “I had planned to break the World record in Brussels at the start of the season, but it did not happen. I had asked Tirunesh to help with leading some part of the race. But she refused and that disrupted my rhythm. I hold no grudges because I know that she could not afford any help.”
Defar even shrugs off suggestions that she ran in Berlin the following weekend to atone for her defeats in three previous occasions. “I had planned the whole season to be named the World Athlete of the Year and I knew that I had to win every race available in order to beat the rest of my challengers,” she says. “I did not run to revenge Tirunesh (Dibaba). I ran for my ranking points.”
Defar concluded the track season with victories over the 3000m at the World Athletics Final and the 5000m at the World Cup.
Big plans in 2007
Dibaba kicked off her 2007 competition year last weekend running successfully for her club the Prisons’ Police sports club in the Ethiopian Marathon Relay Championships in Awassa, Ethiopia. However, Defar will wait until the end of the month when she takes part in the Reebok Boston Indoor Games in the USA.
“With the help of God, I will try to break another World record,” says Defar. “Every runner wants to improve and I am no exception. I have big plans this year including breaking my own World 5000m record.”
Dibaba will also compete indoors in Boston, but her winter will focus on the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya.
The goal of the year for both athletes will be the 11th IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Japan, a competition both runners say ‘is the most important of their lives’.
“I have already qualified for both the 5000m and 10,000m,” says Dibaba. “I am not sure whether I will compete in both. But that is the ultimate goal of the season for me. I want to win a third World 5000m title.”
As always, Defar is banking on being there. “It is too soon to plan for ten months, but I want to win gold in Osaka. We have a long season ahead, but I expect big things in Osaka.”
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF