Updated 31 July 2012
Tirunesh DIBABA, Ethiopia (3000/5000m/10,000m, Cross Country)
Born 1 June, 1985, Chefe, near Bekoji, Arsi region, Ethiopia Height: 1.55m Weight: 44kg
Lives in Addis Ababa Club: Corrections (Prison Police) Manager: Mark Wetmore
Coaches: Hussein Shebo (club)
Fourth of six children. Older sister Ejegayehu (b. 1982) is 2004 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000m and 2011 Chicago marathon runner-up; younger brother Dejene (b. 1989) shows promise; younger sister Genzebe (b. 1990) is the 2008 and 2009 World Cross Country Championships junior champion and 2012 World Indoor 1500 Champion. Former Olympic champion Derartu Tulu is their cousin.
Married Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Sileshi Sihine October 2008.
The Dibaba sisters grew up near the town of Bekoji hearing about their cousin Derartu winning two Olympic gold medals and a World Championship at 10,000m, but their early athletic efforts were most directly inspired by another cousin, Bekelu Dibaba (whom they refer to as their sister), a moderately successful international runner now living in Belgium. Tirunesh’s older sister Ejegayehu began running competitively in 1998; Tirunesh followed a year later.
Tirunesh moved to Addis Ababa in 2000 to live with her sister and cousin while finishing high school. She arrived too late for school registration, however, and facing the choice of returning to Bekoji or finding something to do in the city, she turned to running. With the help of Bekelu, a member of the Corrections police sports club, Tirunesh joined the club and began training fulltime. Within a year she qualified for Ethiopia’s 2001 junior World Cross team and, not yet 16, finished a close 5th in Ostend.
In her first full year of international running, 2002, Tirunesh fell just short of the top spot in several major competitions. She was runner-up to Kenya's Viola Kibiwot in the Junior Women's race at the World Cross in Dublin, to Deena Drossin's World road best in the Carlsbad (California) 5 km, to her teammate Meseret Defar in the 5000m at the World Junior Championships in Jamaica, and to Werknesh Kidane in the Great Ethiopian Run 10K. The following year, she broke out in the most emphatic way, winning the 5000m at the Paris World Championships and becoming the youngest individual winner in the history of the championships. Yet for all her youth, Tirunesh’s performances earlier in 2003 had showed her potential.
She streaked past favored Werknesh to take the 4km title at Ethiopia’s World Cross trials, and strode to a clear win in the junior World Cross in Lausanne. In June, she followed a 5000m World record attempt in Oslo til the final 200m, setting a World junior record (14:39.94) in third place in the process. And in July she won the Ethiopian title at 5000 over a formidable field.
2004 was a year of mixed results. In early January, she defeated cousin Derartu for the first time in Newcastle's Great North Cross Country. She set two indoor World junior records, 14:53.99 for 5000 in Boston and 8:33.56 for 3000m in Birmingham. She took 2nd in the 4 km race at the World Cross in Brussels and notched her second outdoor World junior mark (14:30.88) in the Bislett GL 5000, assuring her selection for the Olympics.
In the Athens 5000m final, she followed Ethiopian-born Turk Elvan Abeylegesse but couldn’t stay with Kenya’s Isabella Ochichi’s lead in the oppressive heat, with Meseret and Tirunesh in tow. As Meseret sprinted past the Kenyan with 200m to go, Tirunesh took bronze, becoming the youngest ever Ethiopian Olympic medallist.
Early in 2005 she smashed the World 5000m indoor record in Boston, her 14:32.93 taking nearly seven seconds off Berhane Adere’s mark. Back in Addis Ababa for the Ethiopian World Cross trials, she sprinted past Meselech Melkamu in a thrilling finish to take the 8 km title and was named to both the short and long course World Cross teams in view of her form, which she declared the best ever. In France, she became the second woman after Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan in 1998 and the third athlete after her compatriot Kenenisa Bekele to take double gold, signalling that 2005 was to be her year.
A week later, Tirunesh matched Briton Paula Radcliffe’s recognised 5K road World best of 14:51 at the Carlsbad 5000. At the Helsinki World Championships, Tirunesh eclipsed her own World Cross double by becoming the first woman to achieve distance double gold on the track. She beat defending champion Berhane in a 58.53 last lap sprint and led her and her own sister Ejegayehu in a 10,000m sweep, before spearheading a historic sweep of the top four places in the 5000m, outsprinting Meseret in a 58.19 last 400m, with Ejegayehu taking bronze and Meselech Melkamu fourth. Tirunesh collected the IAAF award for the female Performance of the Year for her Championships efforts.
An attempt at a second golden World Cross double in Fukuoka was her season’s focus but illness cost Tirunesh three days’ training in the week before the 2006 Championships, and she suffered from stitches during the long course race in which the Netherlands’ Lornah Kiplagat took the lead almost from the gun until the bell lap. But Tirunesh remained in contact and kicked ferociously on the final hill, successfully defending her title.
Tirunesh’s outdoor season was dominated by her bid for six Golden League wins and a share of the $1 million jackpot. She took a decisive victory in Oslo, winning the 5000m in a personal best 14:30.40 but the competition heated up when Meseret, fresh off a 14:24.53 World record run in New York on 3 June, joined the hunt for 5 GL wins and a share of half of the jackpot. Sparks flew in the close finishes of each race, and Tirunesh prevailed in Paris, Rome and Brussels and won in Zurich in Meseret’s absence, remaining undefeated in 5 GL outings and guaranteeing a share of the jackpot. But at the African Championships in Mauritius, Tirunesh, recovering from illness, lost badly to Meseret over 5000m. And then, at the final GL meet in Berlin on 3 September, where Tirunesh was one of four athletes poised to take a share of the larger jackpot by pulling off a 6th win, Meseret’s last lap chase and win deprived Tirunesh of an additional $125,000 a win could have netted her.
The pair battled again down the homestretch at the World Athletics Final, Tirunesh getting her revenge over 5000m in a photo finish and Meseret prevailing in the 3000. Both women topped the podium at the Athens World Cup, with Defar taking the 5000m crown while the “baby-faced destroyer,” as Tirunesh has come to be described, won the 3000m.
In 2007, Tirunesh smashed her own World indoor 5000m record in Boston on 27 January, slicing 5 and a half seconds off to clock 14:27.42, and focused on the defense of her 8K title at the World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, where she was heavily favoured. But she (along with almost the entire Ethiopian team) was defeated by the coastal city’s heat and humidity and she took silver behind the Netherlands’ Lornah Kiplagat, while holding off the in-form Meselech.
Tirunesh raced sparingly that summer and in her defense of her Helsinki crowns in Osaka, she was hampered by a mid-race tumble and abdominal pains in the 10,000 that left her periodically clutching her stomach. She overcame both to win the longer race (in 31:55.41), but only through a heroic effort, and she withdrew from the 5000 (which Meseret won). The abdominal pain continued to dog her afterwards.
Tirunesh then focused on regaining the title she lost in Mombasa at the Edinburgh World Cross Country Championships in 2008. Just as the tone of the day in Mombasa had been set by the disastrous outing of the junior women, including Genzebe, the theme in Edinburgh was indicated by Ethiopia’s gold in that race, won by Genzebe herself in a sprint. Inspired by her sister, Tirunesh clawed her way back to the lead group of the senior race after falling behind midway due to a recurrence of abdominal pain. In the last 400m, she reined in Kenya’s Linet Masai, Edinburgh cross country meet winner Gelete Burka and eventual silver medallist Mestawet Tufa to join her cousin Derartu, American Lynn Jennings and Norwegian Grete Waitz in the ranks of women who have won cross country gold at least three times. Ethiopia went on to sweep all four individual titles in Edinburgh.
The once reticent Tirunesh, who is still shy but less so than when greatness was first thrust upon her, now embraces the expectations placed upon her, and she lived up to Ethiopia’s anticipation of a medal sweep in the 2008 African Championships 10,000m in Addis Ababa in May, where she led her sister and Wude Ayalew across the line.
Greater things were to come in the season, however, and she slashed Meseret’s 14:16.63 2007 World 5000m record to 14:11.15 in Oslo on June 6. Tirunesh ran 31:03.37 for 10,000 in Ostrava and was entered in both events at the Olympics, where she sought to repeat the double she completed at the Worlds in 2005.
In Beijing, Tirunesh not only demolished her opponents over 10,000m, including a relentless Abeylegesse, but she ran a stunning 29:54.66, a clocking that had been surpassed only by the 1993 29:31.78 World record of China’s Wang Junxia. Though its pedestrian pace yielded a tame finish, the 5000m final days later also saw Tirunesh and Abeylegesse climb to the top of the podium, with 2004 defending champion Meseret relegated to bronze. Tirunesh had again done something no other woman before her had accomplished: take distance double gold at the Olympics.
Tirunesh and two-time Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Sileshi Sihine were married in a lavish ceremony in Addis Ababa on 26 October, when throngs lined the streets to wish the happy couple well between their wedding day festivities at various venues. Having taken a lengthy break, Tirunesh resumed training a couple of months later, only to suffer an injury, later determined to be shin splints.
She skipped the entire cross country and indoor season and avoided hard track training and returned to competition in New York on 30 May 2009. “I haven’t trained as much on the track as before because of my leg injury,” said Tirunesh, before suffering a rare defeat over 5000m and taking second to Kenyan Linet Masai in 14:40.93. Tirunesh withdrew from a much-anticipated clash with Meseret over the distance in Oslo and competed just one other time during the season, displaying her form with a world-leading 14:33.65 in London on 25 July.
Tirunesh was entered in both the 10,000 and 5000m at the 2009 World Championships, but in the days before the start of competition, she interrupted a training session due to injury to her left big toe and sought medical attention, following which she eventually pulled out of both championship races.
She returned to competition at the September World Athletics Final 5000m, where she placed second over 5000 behind Meseret, but it was on 15 November when she joined her husband at the Nijmegen 15K road race that she proved her fitness. “We prepared for the competition together … I felt very good during the race,” said Tirunesh, who ran a World record 46.28 in her debut over the distance.
Tirunesh was defeated only once in eight outings in 2010. She started the year by dominating in the snow of the Great Edinburgh cross country 6K on 9 January, where she kicked in the final lap and won by an 8-second margin over Kenya’s 2009 World 5000m champion, Vivian Cheruiyot, and emerging Ethiopian star, Kalkidan Gezahegn (who later took World Indoor 1500m gold). Tirunesh then took an easy 14:44.53 victory at the Boston Indoor Games and though an assault on the World two-mile best in Birmingham was unsuccessful, it gave her a swift 9:12.23 finish, again more than 10 seconds ahead of runner-up Cheruiyot.
Nevertheless, Tirunesh said that she felt her 15K road training in late 2009 interfered with her work over shorter distances and left her hesitant to compete at the 2010 World Cross Country Championships that she had initially intended to contest. When asked in March by the Ethiopian federation to represent the nation in Bydgoszcz, however, she headed up the team on less-than-usual preparation, and was dropped by Emily Chebet and Linet Masai of Kenya and Meselech Melkamu, who medaled ahead of her fourth place finish. Tirunesh did rack up a 20th World Cross medal with the team silver she helped garner, though.
Tirunesh saw the abdominal pains that plagued her in the past resurface intermittently, but she won both of her 5000m races at Diamond League meets in New York and Eugene, taking the former in a modest 15:11.34 that she concluded with a 57-second final lap, and running 14:34.07 in the latter.
In the African Athletics Championships 10,000m in Nairobi, Tirunesh faced the reigning World 10,000 and Cross Country medalist Meselech and the World 10,000 Champion Masai racing on home turf. In her first race after a prior injury interruption, Tirunesh had lost the May 2009 New York 5000m to the Kenyan, and a head-to-head between the pair in Berlin failed to occur when Tirunesh was injured shortly before the Worlds. Tirunesh headed to Nairobi undefeated in six career races over 10,000m from her first outing in Sollentuna, Sweden, in June 2005 till her Beijing Olympic victory.
In her defense of her 2008 African title, Tirunesh followed Masai’s lead until the final lap, when she sprinted past the Kenyan, taking Ethiopia’s only gold of the 2010 championships in 31:51.39 well clear of Meselech and Masai. Tirunesh confirmed she was indeed back to winning form when she again beat a strong field at the London Aviva Diamond League 5000 on 13 August. A 59-second last lap took her to a 14:36.41 victory over African 5000 champion Cheruiyot (14:38.17), the then-Diamond League leader Sentayehu Ejigu, and Masai.
Tirunesh experienced a recurrence of the shin injury that eventually cost her all of 2011 after she withdrew from the Prefontaine Classic 5000 and missed the 2011 Daegu world championships. “I experienced a lot of pain,” she said.
Her first race back was a road 10K on New Year’s Eve in Madrid, where she returned to winning ways, prevailing in a sprint duel over Gelete, with both women clocking 31.30. “Today was my first competition for so long, I have to be satisfied,” she told the IAAF website. “I’m now fully recovered from injury, my trainings are going well.” Indoors in Boston, in February 2012, she ran 9:21.60 for two miles with some two months and three track sessions under her belt since resuming training.
She limited her outdoor build-up to the London Olympics to just one track race over 5000 and 10,000 each after kicking off the season in April with a victory at the Carlsbad 5000 on the road in 15:01 over Werknesh Kidane. “I hadn’t raced in a while then and there was a bit of a wind, so I didn’t run as fast a time as I wanted,” said Tirunesh.
Her 1 June Prefontaine Classic race in Eugene put her at the top of the list of London-bound Ethiopian women in the 10,000 when she grabbed her side during the race due to a return of the old abdominal pains, but still hung on to kick past her fellow Ethiopian and London berth seeker Beleynesh Oljira and Kenyan Florence Kiplagat, winning in 30:24.39. “It was my first track race outdoors and I had prepared well for it,” said Tirunesh. “I had pain during the race and if it hadn’t been for that, I expected to run a fast time.” Werknesh completed the Ethiopian trio that earned Olympic slots there.
The 9 June New York DL gave spectators an unexpected treat when Meseret was added to the 5000m field, but Tirunesh easily took the measure of her rival, running a decisive last lap to win. “Because I raced last week, I didn’t want to follow the pacers,” she said. “I aimed to win and I planned to kick at the end, and that’s what I did.” The 14:50.80 finish, however, was only the year’s fourth-fastest among her compatriots. Season bests being Ethiopia’s primary selection criterion for the Olympics, Tirunesh was named a reserve on that event, behind Meseret, Gelete and the less experienced Genet Yalew.
The athletics federation also looks at runners’ current fitness both in naming the entries of three athletes and a reserve, and in determining which of the four athletes will eventually run, and Tirunesh may well double in London and defend her two Beijing titles.
But first she leads Beleynesh and Werknesh in the 10,000 final on the first night of athletics in London, where the reigning double World Champion Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya will be her fiercest opponent; and Tirunesh will be looking to not only retain the Olympic crown but also extend her unbeaten streak over the distance to nine.
3000m: 8:33.37i (2008)
5000m: 14:27.42i (2007)
3000m: 8:29.55 (2006)
5000m: 14:11.15 (2008) (WR)
10,000m: 29:54.66 (2008)
3000/ 5000/ 10,000: 2002 - 8:41.86/ 14:49.90; 2003 – 8:50.20/ 14:39.94; 2004 – 8:33.56i (WJR)/ 14:53.99i 14:30.88 (WJR); 2005 – /14:32.93i, 14:32.42/ 30:15.67; 2006 – 8:41.22i 8:29.55/ 14:35.46i 14:30.40; 2007 – 8:46.58/ 14:27.42i (WR)/ 31:55.41; 2008 – 8:33.37i/ 14:11.15 (WR)/-/ 29:54.66 (AR); 2009 – -/ 14:33.65/ -; 2010 – 8:40.3i/14:34.07/ 31:51.39A; 2011 – -/-/-; 2012 – -/14:50.80/30:24.39.
2002 2nd World Cross Country Championships, junior
2002 2nd World Junior Championships, 5000m 2003 1st World Cross Country Championships, junior
2003 1st World Championships, 5000m 2003 4th All-Africa Games, 5000m 2003 2nd Afro-Asian Games, 5000m 2004 2nd World Cross Country Championships, 4K 2004 3rd Olympic Games, 5000m 2005 1st World Cross Country Championships, 4K 2005 1st World Cross Country Championships, 8K
2005 1st World Championships, 5000m 2005 1st World Championships, 10,000m
2005 2nd World Athletics Final, 5000m
2006 1st World Cross Country Championships, 8K
2006 2nd African Championships, 5000m 2006 2nd World Athletics Final, 3000m
2006 1st World Athletics Final, 5000m 2006 1st World Cup, 3000m 2007 2nd World Cross Country Championships, 8K 2007 1st World Championships, 10,000m
2008 1st World Cross Country Championships, 8K
2008 1st African Championships, 10,000m
2008 1st Olympic Games, 10,000m
2008 1st Olympic Games, 5000m
2009 2nd World Athletics Final, 5000m
2010 4th World Cross Country Championships, 8K
2010 1st African Athletics Championships, 10,000m
Note on Ethiopian names: Ethiopians are customarily referred to by first name only or first and second name together, the second name being the father's first name. (The grandfather’s first name is sometimes added as a third name, and is optional in much the same way that a Western middle name is frequently omitted.)
Prepared by Sabrina Yohannes for the IAAF "Focus on Athletes" project. Copyright IAAF 2003-2012.