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Updated 11 September 2009
Maryam Yusuf JAMAL, Bahrain (800m/1000/mile/1500/2000/3000/5000)
Born Zenebech Tola Kotu, 16 September 1984, Arsi province (Ethiopia)
Coach: Tareq Sabt Yaqoob (her husband since September 2006)
It is no wonder that Zenebech Tola (now Maryam Yusuf Jamal) took to running at an early age - she was born in the same village as Haile Gebrselassie, her idol. "Like all boys and girls from Arsi, I wanted to emulate him,” she says. She developed her endurance by walking daily to school. "With a few other children from the village, we used to walk 16km every day. Sometimes we had to run when we were late".
Born in a family with five children (2 older brothers, 2 younger), Tola was the only one attracted by athletics. She started at 15 with school trials in her village but, competing at 100m, 200m and 400m, she was a distant finisher. A week later, she clinched her selection in the high jump for the inter-school meeting, clearing 1.45m, then improved her mark by 8cm, placing second at the inter-school meeting.
Only a year later (2000) Tola ventured into middle-distance running when she registered with the Muger Club in Addis Ababa (Kenenisa Bekele is also a member). Her progress was monitored for a year by coach Tolossa Kotu, who registered her for her first cross country as a junior (6km) at the 2001 World Trials. She finished ninth, missing a place in the squad of six.
Tola overcame her disappointment the following summer with third place in the 1500m (4:24) at the national junior championships. It was a result that drew the attention of a Switzerland-based manager, who invited her to his country to race. She competed in road races, mountain races and three half-marathons, winning most of them.
For personal reasons, Zenebech (an Oromo) decided not to return to Ethiopia, fearing that she might not be allowed abroad again. Feeling comfortable in her adoptive country, she filed for political asylum in May 2002. She settled in Lausanne and joined the "Stade Lausanne Athlétisme" while starting to learn French to facilitate her integration.
By this time, she was convinced that she had no future on the track. Her partner, Mnashu Taye, also an asylum seeker from Ethiopia (who became a Bahraini citizen at the same time as Zenebech and is now called Tareq Sabt Hasan) eventually managed to convince her to compete in the 3000m in the inter-provincial match organised in Lausanne in 2003. She won in a modest 9:29.13 but, persuaded that she could do better, she had another try at the distance at the international Lausanne meet, Athletissima, where she finished 16th and last in 9:27.91. In September, she took part in a 1500m at a meet in Fribourg and won in 4:18.22.
In 2004, Tola turned to the 5000m at the national inter-club championships and won in 15:19.45. After achieving the 1500m Olympic standard at the Luzern international meet (4:07.38), she asked the Ethiopian federation to include her in the team for Athens, with the support of the IOC. The negative answer prompted her to seek Swiss citizenship but her request was denied by the Swiss federal authorities as citizenship cannot be granted before 12 years of residence in the country.
This setback did not prevent her from recording a great performance on 6 August 2004 at the Zürich Weltklasse meeting, in which she finished second in the 3000m (8:40.32). As her refugee status prevented her from competing outside Switzerland, Tola ran as many road races as she could throughout the country to make a living. Among other results, she clocked 1:11:43 for the 2004 Zürich Half-marathon.
In 2005, with the help of Jacky Delapierre, the director of Athletissima, a solution was sought to allow Tola to run in international competitions. The kingdom of Bahrain invited her to change citizenship and Zenebech Tola became Maryam Yusuf Jamal in January 2005.
Two months later, Jamal took part in the World Cross Country short course championship in Saint-Etienne/Saint-Galmier, where she struggled to finish 33rd, being ill-prepared. The track season was far better, with several world class times in a short span: 14:51.68 for 5000m in Hengelo on 29 May, 1:59.69 in a solo run in Geneva on 11 June and a winning 3:59.13 in the 1500m in Athens on 14 June.
Her times show a wide range of ability but it was the 1500m that she settled on for the 2005 World Championships, in Helsinki. An easy winner in her heat, Jamal could do no better than fifth in the final after severe jostling with 250m to go saw her spiked twice on the right foot. She took her revenge with a victory at the IAAF World Athletics Final, in Monaco, and with a season's world best in Rieti on 28 August (3:56.79).
After her first international season on the track, her resume was impressive with 22 wins out of 26 races. She was ranked 19th in the Top Lists for the 800m, 19th in the 5000m (though she only had one attempt at the distance) and recorded world leaing performances for 2005 in the 1500m (3:56.79) and 3000m (8:28.87).
In the beginning of 2006, Jamal spent one month training in Potchefstroom, South Africa. On her return she won the 1500m in the indoor Valencia meet (4:01.82) and, in Moscow in March, she clinched her first World Championship medal when placing third over 1500m at the World Indoors. Three weeks later, she raced at the World Cross Country Championships, in Fukuoka, but finished a distant 37th.
Back training in Europe, Jamal focused mainly on the Golden League meetings at 1500m, but also raced at 800m in Athens and Zürich to improve her speed. Returning from an altitude training camp in St Moritz, she won her first outdoor Grand Prix 1500m race in Stockholm, one month before improving her personal best to 3:56.18 in Rieti, having set her previous best there in 2005.
At the end of season, the Bahraini confirmed her form with victories at the World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, and World Cup, in Athens. In the Asian Games, in Doha, Qatar, in December, Jamal easily won 800m and 1500m.
Like the previous year, Jamal spent January of last year training in South Africa but chose to miss the indoor season. After training in St Moritz in April, Jamal recorded 1500m wins this season at World Athletics Tour meets in Oslo (4:01.44), Lausanne (4:03.61) and Monaco (4:00.43) but finished second in Athens (3:59.00) and 13th in Paris (4:07.92).
Just two days after Athletissima, Jamal’s coach, Jean-François Pahud, decided to stop his collaboration with her. He wanted to bear the responsibilities for the training alone but the proposition was not accepted by the athlete. So Tareq Sabt Yaqoob became her official coach.
After a great season in 2007, when she became the first Bahraini woman to win World Championship gold, in Osaka, then she took a break for one month and decided in November to make her first visit to her homeland Ethiopia to see her family after a seven-year absence. “A very great emotion” she says.
In December, she participated in two road races in Switzerland (second in Geneva and first in Sion). Then, as usual, she returned to Bahrain where she spends less than one month every year. “The reception was amazing,” she said. “I’ve received such a beautiful diamond watch from the Queen. A really nice gift.”
In January 2008, she decided with her husband and coach Tareq to move her winter training to Addis with her training partner, 2006 Asian Games 800m champion Yusuf Saad Kamel. “There I met a lot of Ethiopia’s top athletes, most of them are friends” she says.
The 2008 season was not to be the best for her. Only fourth at the World indoor Championships over 1500 m in Valencia, she reacted well and with strong outings in the summer meetings, notching a victory over 800m in New York on 31 May, and two more wins ver “her” 1500m in Athens on 13 July and Paris Saint-Denis Golden League meeting on 18 July. With some of the top Russian runners provisionally suspended for violating doping regulations, most observers probably expected Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka and Bahrain’s Maryam Jamal to be the two battling it out for the gold medal in Beijing. But Jamal surprisingly "ran out of gas" in the all-decisive last half lap of the Final and only finished fifth.
Fortunately, after this defeat, she again had a good reaction, winning the 1500 m in Lausanne and Rieti and chalking up her fourth World Atheltics Final 1500 m victory in Stuttgart last September.
This winter, in her only indoor appearance, she won 1500 m race in a solo run in Birmingham in 4:02.74. Jamal also won easily the 10th Asian Cross Country Championships in Bahrain in the senior women’s 8 km race in the front of her compatriot Mimi Belete. Following this success she decided to participate in the World Cross Country Championships in Amman. “It’s the first time I’ve returned to this competition since 2006” she said before the race. In Amman, Jamal finished 9th just behind Gelete Burka, her best result for ever in this competition.
After that, she came back to Addis Ababa during 2 months to prepare the summer season. She’s returned to competition in Hengelo (800), then Eugene (2000) before to participate at her first 1500 m in Lausanne (second behind Burka). Then, she ran a fantastic world leading time in Rome (3:56.55), the second best mark of her life. “I wanted to make a good time, because I was not good in Lausanne” she explained. “I am not surprised by the time, even it was a bit quicker than I expected. I’m in the shape of my life. By now, as usual, I’m going to go to St-Moritz to prepare the next World Championships.”
Jamal continued with two wins in her last races before the World Championships, and in Berlin she successfully defended her title, by just one hundredth from Briton Lisa Dobriskey after the disqualification of Natalia Rodriguez. The Spaniard had crossed the line first, but having pushed co-favourite Gelete Burka of Ethiopia, who fell to the ground with 200 metres to run.
Heading into the World Athletics Final, Jamal boasts an enviable record, having won all her 1500 m races this summer except the last one in Rieti, where she was second behind Dobriskey.
800m 1:58.66 Hengelo 24.05.08
1000m 2:30.27 Kaminoyama City 12.08.08
1500m 3:56:18 Rieti 27.08.06
3000m 8:28:87 Oslo 29.07.05
Mile 4:17.75 Brussels 14.09.07
5000m 14:51:68 Hengelo 29.05.05
5km 15:24:8 Bern 13.06.04
10km 32:29:8 Thun 05.09.04
15km 49.52 Kerzers 20.03.04
10 mile 56:10 Bern 10.05.03
Half Marathon 1:11:42 Uster 18.09.04
2003 800m: 2:07:59; 1500m: 4:18:22; 3000m: 9:27:91
2004 800m: 2:02:18; 1500m: 4:07:38; 3000m: 8:40:32; 5000m: 15:19:45
2005 800m: 1 :59.69; 1500m: 3:56.79; 3000m: 8:28.87; 5000m: 14 :51.68
2006 800 m: 1:59.04; 1500m: 3:56.18
2007 1500m 3:58.75; mile 4:17.75; 5000m 15:20.28
2008 800 m: 1:58.66 1000 m 2:30.27 1500 m: 3:59.84 (indoor 3:59.79) mile 4:19.50
2009 800m 1:59.98; 1500m 3:56.55; 2000m 5:31.88
1.Hengelo 800; 2. Eugene 2000; 2. Lausanne 1500; 1.Rome 1500; 1.Athens 1500; 1. Monaco 1500 1. Zurich 1500; 2. Rieti 1500
2006 1st 1500m, World Athletics Final, Stuttgart
2006 3rd 1500m, World Indoor Championships, Moscow
2006 1st 800m and 1500m, Asian Games, Doha
2007 1st 1500m, World Championships, Osaka
2008 4th 1500 m, World Indoor Championships, Valencia
2008 5th 1500 m Olympic Games, Beijing
2009 1st Asian Cross Country Championships
2009 1st 1500 m, World Championships, Berlin
Prepared by Pierre-André Pasche for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2006-2009.