No sooner had Genzebe Dibaba joined the select band of athletes to have claimed four world indoor titles than the Ethiopian phenomenon was setting her sights on a fifth gold medal – and on the completion of a women’s 1500m-3000m double that has been achieved just once before in the 33-year history of the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
All three podium-placers in what proved to be a compelling firecracker of a 3000m final on opening night – the peerless Dibaba, 2016 1500m champion Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and Briton Laura Muir – had reason to bask in the glow of momentous accomplishments after collecting their chunks of precious metal in the wake of the first track final in Arena Birmingham.
And yet, elite global athletes being the focused, driven animals that they happen to be, these three musketeers of the boards were all blissfully unaware of the significance of their performances in Thursday evening’s race (1 March).
The sole concern for the steely-eyed Dibaba was getting ready for part two of her double mission in Britain’s snow-bound second city – and the thrilling prospect of a swift rematch with her fellow medallists.
The fact that Dibaba was halfway to matching a world indoor double completed only by the elfin Romanian Gabriela Szabo in Maebashi in 1999 came as news to the seemingly invincible indoor racing machine from East Africa. Asked if she was aware of this potential feat, Dibaba shook her head and replied: “My plan is the one-two of gold medals.
“Tomorrow (Friday 2 March), it is the heat of the 1500m for me – no problem. On Saturday (3 March), I will go into the final to win the race. My aim is to win two finals here.”
After completing her round of post-race interviews, long after the crowd had departed, Dibaba was back on the track in the arena, breaking down the lactic acid. For half an hour, she jogged round the 200m circuit – in the opposite direction.
It brought to mind the sight of Mo Farah running the wrong way on the same track 11 years ago. In the case of the future king of the global distance running game, it was sheer disorientation after a mid-race fall in the 3000m heats at the 2007 European Indoor Championships. In Dibaba’s case, it was sheer professionalism, getting the kinks out of the legs in preparation for the 1500m heats.
Like Farah over the 5000m and 10,000m outdoors, from 2011 to 2017, Dibaba indoors has acquired a shield of invincibility. Indeed, apart from a disqualification for cutting inside too quickly in a 3000m in Dusseldorf in 2012, the 27-year-old has been unbeaten on the boards for eight years. Her last indoor defeat, other than that 2012 DQ, dates back to the indoor Grand Prix in Boston on 6 February 2010.
Ten years on from her breakthrough win in the snow in Edinburgh in the junior race at the 2008 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, on an afternoon when big sister Tirunesh took the senior women’s title, Dibaba has a fourth world indoor crown. Having completed a hat-trick of 3000m wins (2014, 2016 and 2018, adding to a 1500m triumph from Istanbul in 2012), she has become the 14th athlete to collect a quartet of individual world indoor golds.
Not that the 2015 world 1500m champion was aware of following in the footsteps of Maria Mutola (seven), Ivan Pedroso and Stefka Kostadinova (five), Haile Gebresalassie, Mikhail Schennikov, Gail Devers, Gabriella Szabo, Yelena Isinbayeva, Valerie Adams, Sergey Bubka, Javier Sotomayor, Stefan Holm and Meseret Defar (four).
“I like indoor races very much,” she said. “Haile won four times and now I am one of the ladies to win four times, so I’m very successful. I’m very happy.
“It was a fantastic race for me, a fantastic day. My plan was successful. I won the race. I am feeling very happy.”
As well she might, having breezed through from the rear of the field to take command with 1000 metres to go. Following the travails of the past two outdoor seasons (beaten to Olympic 1500m gold by Faith Kipyegon in Rio in 2016, 12th and last in the 1500m final at last year’s World Championships in London because of illness), Dibaba looks like the Genzebe of 2014, when she swept to three global records in 15 days, in addition to the first of her world indoor 3000m gold medals.
Hassan targets medal No.3
For Hassan, the disappointment of relinquishing the 1500m crown she took in Portland two years ago was tempered by the news that she had become only the third Dutch athlete to gain a second world indoor medal, although Nelli Cooman (60m 1987, 1989) and Elly van Hulst (1500m 1987, 3000m 1989) both achieved two golds.
“I didn’t know that,” said Hassan, “I hope I get another medal in the 1500m. The first Dutch athlete to get three medals would be good.
“We’ll see… There will be the three of us again and also other girls who will be fresh. Laura ran a good 800m this year (a world-leading 1:59.69), so she will come in with good speed.”
Muir makes up for near-misses
Muir’s speed was not quite enough for her to snatch 3000m silver from Hassan in the home straight but the 24-year-old was happy enough with the bronze medal she claimed ahead of world 5000m champion Hellen Obiri – her first medal on the global stage, after four years of frustrating near-misses and heat disappointments.
Back in 2014 the veterinary student went to Sopot as a medal contender in the 800m, only to crash out in the brutal heats, from which only the winner qualified automatically.
“The transformation in four years has been pretty incredible, not just physically but mentally as well,” reflected Muir, who missed out on a world outdoor 1500m medal in London last year by a tantalising 0.07. “I remember going into Sopot feeling under a lot of pressure and I didn’t deal with it very well.
“I’m a completely different athlete now. I’ve got a completely different attitude and I’m enjoying races a lot more. I think it shows in my performances.
“I’ve been through a lot of tough races, even though I’m relatively young in the sport. I’ve had a lot of hard races to reflect upon and a lot of disappointing results, but I think that really played into my hands in terms of making me stronger for the future.”
Muir’s mental fortitude was tested by a six-hour taxi ride from snow-bound Glasgow the night before. “The windscreen wipers were frozen but we got here,” she said.
“We stopped about halfway and I managed to do a kind of walk and jog and lunge around the service station. But we didn’t want to stop too much because the weather was closing in behind us.
“We wanted to plough ahead and get down here. British Athletics did a great job in organising a taxi.”
Only two British athletes had previously won medals in the event, both of them also from Scotland. Liz McColgan, mother and coach of Muir’s British teammate Eilish McColgan, who finished 10th in Thursday’s final, took the silver medal in the wake of Van Hulst’s world record-breaking 8:33.82 in Budapest in 1983. Yvonne Murray won gold in Toronto in 1993.
“Wow!” Muir exclaimed. “They’re very big names… two Scots and I’ve got to add to the list.
“I didn’t know that but it’s great to hear.”
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF