As inspiration goes it takes some beating. Only minutes after becoming the most successful woman in the history of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Tirunesh Dibaba stood in the flapping white tent that served as a media/athlete mixed zone in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park and insisted it wasn’t her own victory that had painted the broad, joyful smile on her mud-spotted 22-year-old face.
What does it mean to win your third World Cross Country long course title, she was asked? “Yes, I am very happy to win again,” she replied. “But I am more happy about my sister than I am about myself.”
Just an hour before Dibaba had defied the doubters by winning her fifth individual World Cross Country gold, her 17-year-old sister Genzebe had sprung a surprise by winning the junior women’s title, emulating her older sister’s victory from 2003, the first of Tirunesh’s eight-medal haul.
For Genzebe it was her first major honour of any kind and an immediate inspiration to Tirunesh who was watching, nervously, from the sidelines. Indeed, she was meant to be warming up for her own race, but the anxiety proved too much and Tirunesh neglected her own preparations as her sister snatched an unexpected gold and set Ethiopia on the way to a record-breaking day.
“No, I didn’t warm up a lot,” said Tirunesh. “I was watching Genzebe’s race and I was very anxious for her, more anxious than I was for myself.
“I am so happy now that we have both won golds, but I am more happy for her than I am for me.”
The Dibaba sisters may have become the first athletes from the same family to win gold medals at these championships, but neither was assured of victory until the final stages of their races. Indeed, they adopted strikingly similar race tactics.
Both spent the early laps hanging off the lead but never losing touch with the front runners. Both made their strikes on the final climb around the one testing hill on the Holyrood Park course, known to natives of Edinburgh as Haggis Knowe. And both produced unmatchable bursts of speed from the summit to take them clear of their rivals.
What’s more, after finishing fifth last year in Mombasa, when she and two of her teammates miscounted the laps, Genzebe wasn’t even favourite for her event, while Tirunesh’s form and fitness were in doubt after unsolved stomach problems had caused her to cancel much of her 2007 track season.
Incredibly, according to officials from the Ethiopian team, she was still only 75 per cent fit coming in to today’s race. “The stomach was all right today,” she said. “In the middle of the race I did begin to feel it but it slowly went away, so maybe it’s not like in the past.”
Afterwards, with the doubts truly laid to rest, both sisters were eager to give each other credit for their wins.
For Genzebe, it was Tirunesh’s “very good” pre-race advice that held the key, while for Tirunesh it was the thought of her sister’s win that spurred her into one last heroic effort at the end of her gruelling, and compelling, 8km race.
“It was partly in order to match her (Genzebe’s) achievement that I dug in and put everything I had into winning,” she said.
Back in Ethiopia they actually compete for different clubs – Genzebe for the Muger Cement Sports Club and Tirunesh for the Prisons Police – but they do often train together, along with their older sister, Ejagayou, the Olympic 10,000m silver medallist. They also plan to come together in the same club later this year.
“Genzebe is so young and talented,” said Dibaba of her younger sister. “In time I expect she’ll become even stronger and quicker than me.”
But for the Dibabas the habit of winning World Cross Country titles runs even further back in the family. Derartu Tulu, the champion in 1995, 1997 and 2000, is their cousin and Tirunesh was also keen to pay respects to the first great lady of Ethiopian distance running.
“I am aware that my cousin has won this race three times, so I’m very happy to have done the same thing,” she said.
For Tirunesh, today’s victory was something of a redemption after she was beaten last year in the heat of Mombasa by the Dutchwoman Lornah Kiplagat when chasing a third consecutive gold. It was a tough year for Ethiopia as a whole and Tirunesh was clearly motivated this afternoon by the need to put things right.
“Last year, as individuals and as a team we didn’t do well,” she said. “This year we redeemed ourselves. We have been preparing for a long time. Cross country is very important to us and we wanted to bring a strong team and do very well here.”
Well and truly redeemed on the grass, now Dibaba will aim to match her cousin again, on the track, by becoming the Olympic 10,000m champion. “I expect to do well,” she said of the Beijing Olympics this August.
Perhaps she should make sure Genzebe races as well – just for the inspiration.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF