StTirunesh Dibaba today extracted some family revenge, the 19-year-old leading her Ethiopian training partners in a dominant display to team gold and collecting the $30,000 individual first prize in the women’s long race at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships here at St-Etienne/St-Galmier.
Dibaba clearly enjoys racing in France, for it was in Paris two years ago that she became the youngest ever winner of the 5000m World title on the track. This time, her achievement was less of a surprise, but it was no less hard-won.
Twelve months ago, Dibaba’s older sister, Ejegayehou, was outrun through the rain, wind and mud of Brussels to be denied the World title by Benita Johnson, as she won Australia’s first ever medal at the World Cross.
Family and national honour was duly restored by the young Dibaba, though not before Johnson and the Kenyan team put up a spirited fight.
Dibaba covered the 8km-plus course in a breathtaking 26:34, with the judges’ examination of the photo-finish required to separate Kenya’s Alice Timbilili and last year’s bronze medallist, Werknesh Kidane, as they were both clocked at 26:37, Kidane, the 2003 champion, third again this time.
Kenya took the team silvers, with Portugal, led home by 15th-placed Analia Rosa, winning bronze, their first team medal at this meeting since they interrupted - briefly - the East African domination in Budapest 11 years ago.
Rosa, a steeplechaser on the track, clearly found the course to her liking. For if anyone was under the apprehension that Helsinki in August would witness the debut of a women’s steeplechase at the World Championships, they would be wrong: each lap here featured six low logs that needed hurdling, as well as a handful of man-made mounds designed to disrupt the rhythm of the runners.
At an official 8.108 metres - four laps of 1.956m, plus the 284m of the start-finish funnel - this was to be longer than any of the previous 32 stagings of the women’s race at the championships.
It was also conducted in conditions more familiar to midsummer than mid-March, with blue skies and sunshine over the hills of the Rhone valley, the temperature touching 27 degrees for the mid-afternoon start, adding a gruelling extra dimension to the endurance demanded of the 90-odd starters.
Otherwise, with the going underfoot at the St-Galmier hippodrome firm, this flat course, with the dirt of the racetrack blowing up a sandstorm under the feet of the mass of runners, would prove to be a fierce test of track speed, as a lead group of 16 women sped through the first lap in less than 7:30.
“The course was really hard,” Dibaba said, “and the weather was a little uncomfortable, but I was glad it wasn’t muddy.”
The fast conditions meant it was brutal, eyeballs-out, hard running from the starting gun, with Johnson prominent early on, hemmed in at times by a knot of runners including six Kenyans, five Ethiopians, Eden Tesfalen, of Eritrea, Zakia Mrisho and Ruhama Shauri, of Tanzania, and New Zealand’s Kimberley Smith hanging in doggedly.
“I knew she would be strong and tough,” Dibaba said of Johnson. “Last year she won by a very large margin, so I expected her to do the same thing again and make it tough.”
The relentless pace in the searing heat had boiled the lead group down by half long before the halfway mark, and the outcome of the race was defined. As if to reinforce the track pedigree required by this race, it was Isabella Ochichi, Kenya’s Olympic 5,000m silver medallist, dictating terms from Dibaba, who during the indoor season had set a world record for 5000m.
Midway around the third lap, and Johnson, challenged by two Kenyans and three Ethiopians, was struggling, her title hanging by a thread. Throughout the European winter, the Australian had raced her and won four times out of five: her one defeat coming at the hands of none other than Dibaba at Edinburgh after Christmas. It would prove to be a reliable form guide. “I was confident from that race that I could beat her again,” Dibaba.
As the leaders approached the bell, with Ochichi in the lead, shoulder to shoulder with Timbilili, Johnson was now 10 metres adrift of the pack, with Kidane, Dibaba and Meselech Melkamu stalking their Kenyan rivals.
A year ago, in the entirely opposite conditions in Brussels, Kidane, then defending the title she'd won in 2003, had done much of the early pacesetting work and paid the penalty as she faded in the latter stages. This time, she and Dibaba displayed far more patience, and it was not until the final quarter-mile that the younger of the two unleashed the decisive kick, hurling herself over the final set of logs to enter the finishing straight well clear of the duel for silver between Timbilili and Kidane, 21-year-old Kenyan just preventing an Ethiopian cleansweep of the individual medals.
Closing the Ethiopian team in eighth place, one behind the tiring Johnson, was another former champion, Gete Wami, adding another team gold medal to her collection of 19 in total - a tally matched only by Kenenisa Bekele following his double gold earlier in the afternoon.
Dibaba and Werknesh both paid tribute to Bekele. “His achievements are a source of great joy for all Ethiopians, not just the athletes,” Werknesh said.
The women’s race here, though, sets up the prospect of an intriguing re-match over 5000m at the Helsinki World Championships in five months’ time, with Dibaba, Werknesh and Timbilili, plus the ultimately fifth placed Ochichi, all likely to resume their rivalry. And none, it seems, are likely to opt for the steeplechase.
Steven Downes for the IAAF
For FULL RESULTS click here