StA generation ago, Derartu Tulu’s gold medal at 10,000 metres at the Barcelona Olympic Games was heralded as a breakthrough moment for East African women athletes.
Tirunesh Dibaba was just six years old then, the fourth of six children growing up in Chefe, near to cousin Tulu’s hometown of Bekoji, in the high altitude Arsi region of Ethiopia. It would be another seven years before Tirunesh herself starting running competitively, but now, racing in the footsteps of Tulu, it is clear that Dibaba is about to forge a running dynasty.
Tulu, of course, went on to win another Olympic gold and a World title. Ejagayehou Dibaba, Tirunesh’s older sister, won a World Cross silver in Brussels last year and followed that with Olympic silver at 10,000m. Another cousin, Bekelu Dibaba, has sampled some moderate international success, and back home in Chefe, teenaged brother Dejene is already seen as having great potential at 800m and their sister, Genzebe, is making her mark in regional age group cross-country races.
Yet it is Tirunesh who has already achieved status as an international great. In five appearances at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, starting as a 15-year-old with a fifth place in the junior women’s race in 2001, she has now won two silver and three individual gold medals, her double at St-Etienne/St-Galmier this weekend bringing comparisons with the hero of all Ethiopia, Kenenisa Bekele.
Dibaba has been precocious in other respects of her life. In 2000, aged 14, she moved from the country to Addis Ababa to live with her older sister and cousin Bekelu to finish high school. But when she arrived, she was too late to register for school, so Bekelu enrolled her in her athletics club, the Prisons Police, and Tirunesh started training full-time. Within a year, she was racing in her first World Cross.
Despite some impressive performances on the roads, track and at cross-country in 2002, it was in winning the 5000m World title in Paris in 2003 - the youngest individual winner in the championships’ history - that shook the world of distance running. World junior and indoor records at 3000 and 5000m have followed, as has even a victory over her famed cousin, Derartu Tulu. Even in dynasties, the crown must be passed on at some point.
The 5000m bronze medal at the Athens Olympics last August may have been below the high benchmark that Tirunesh had set for herself, yet context is all here: in winning it, she became her country’s youngest ever Olympic medallist and, at 19, might expect to have another three Games in a career which she admits will lead ultimately to the marathon, in the Ethiopian tradition.
Now, comparisons with Tulu are likely to be superseded by comparisons with Bekele, as Tirunesh became the first woman since Sonia O’Sullivan in 1998 to achieve the double of long and short race titles.
Her disarming candour should not be confused with arrogance. When she says, “I did think I could win both races,” there is no false bluster, but merely a statement of a genuine belief in her own ability, which will have been reinforced by her proud coaches, Hussein Shebo and Woldemeskel Kostre.
For as the quiet-voiced, bright-eyed teenager dealt with the questions of the world’s press after the second of her twin triumphs, her naivety was apparent when she admitted that she had no idea that anyone had ever managed to win both races before. “All I knew before I came here was that I was to run in both,” she said.
In common with Bekele, she said that she found coping with two total commitment races in two days to be difficult (not that it showed in her performances). “Today it was harder than yesterday, because I had run hard yesterday.
“The mud and the logs made it harder than yesterday, too. The logs bothered me more today.
“But I am very happy. Winning both races is a dream come true.”
Richer by $60,000 for her weekend’s work (not including any share of the prize money for two team successes, too), Dibaba’s attention now turns to the track and to the difficult business of defending her World 5000m title in Helsinki this summer, where Meseret Defar, the Olympic champion, will surely be her fiercest rival.
But then you hear again the quiet assurance and belief in her own ability. “At the World Championships, my aim is to win the gold at 5000m again,” she says. On today’s form, there’s no reason to doubt her.
Steven Downes for the IAAF