Tirunesh Dibaba (ETH) shows her women's World junior gold medal with pride (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Ethiopian women have the family to thank

Lausanne was not just an Ethiopian party for Bekele. Led by Werknesh Kidane’s two medals, Ethiopia’s women took home five individual medals from the 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships over the weekend of 29-30 March 2003.

Yet significantly unlike some of their predecessors, these women medallists do not practice their sport in spite of their families. In fact, for three of the four medallists, running or the motivation to do so, is very much a family affair.

Tirunesh Dibaba started off the Lausanne championships by taking gold in the junior women’s race, before competing in the short race the next day with her older sister Ejigayehu, whose running five years ago prompted Tirunesh to follow suit a year later. The sisters are relatives of World and Olympic champion Derartu Tulu.

“But there’s another sister of ours who used to run, whom we knew about first,” said Ejigayehu, referring to Bekelu Dibaba, who is actually a cousin, and now lives in Belgium.

Her running inspired Ejigayehu, after which she and Tirunesh received vital encouragement from Tulu, whose exploits have opened the door for many of her country women. The Dibaba sisters frequently confront the hurdles and decisions of an international career jointly, in addition to competing and sometimes getting to travel together.

Tirunesh won the 4K at the national championships in Addis Ababa, and in Lausanne placed among the event’s top ten finishers while competing for the second straight day.

So did Merima Denboba, who had taken bronze behind Kidane’s gold in the long race on Saturday. For Denboba, running is something she shares with her husband, Kalib Hamza, who has lived in and run for Qatar, but is currently back in Ethiopia.

“On the days I’m not working with the national team, we train together,” said Denboba. The key family member in Kidane’s career has never travelled to international races, but were it not for his insistence, she would probably never have become a runner.

At 13, Kidane moved to Addis Ababa to live with her uncle, Kidane Demoz, a soldier from the northern region of Tigray, where Kidane had grown up, not far from Axum, the site of Ethiopia’s historic obelisks. Being a military man, Demoz believed in physical exercise, and took Kidane out running early one morning.

“I hated getting up early, so it was with difficulty that I arose,” said Kidane. "The first day, I was not so unhappy afterwards. I ran, and it was alright.”

The next day was another story. Kidane’s legs were aching when her uncle awoke her early that morning to run again, and she was, as she politely put it, “rather unhappy.” But following the Ethiopian custom of respecting one’s elders, she obliged. “I used to wish he would leave me alone,” she said of those early days of running.

Kidane, who entered her first competition within the year, has long since discovered the joy of running for herself and reaped its benefits, taking a World junior cross country title in 1999, and silver and bronze individual medals as both a junior and a senior before earning her first senior title this year.

But she is still not immune to that next-day soreness of legs that have run hard the day before, as her second day of racing in Lausanne showed.

Kidane’s decisive victory in the long race on Saturday -- when she swept past American Deena Drossin -- gave the Ethiopian women their second team gold of the day, following the junior team’s triumph, and prompting the praise of the Ethiopian Athletic Federation’s Endalkatchew Kelemwork.

“I am very pleased with Werknesh, because there were tactics we had discussed before the race,” he said, without elaborating on them. “And she executed them perfectly.”

In the short race on Sunday, Kidane stayed in the hunt for gold along, first with three, then two Kenyan women, but failed to match Edith Masai’s kick, and ultimately took silver.

“I just couldn’t do it,” said Kidane. “I felt stiffness in my legs.”

Earlier, it had seemed possible that she would emulate Kenenisa Bekele’s 2002 long and short race double victory -- which he was to repeat later that afternoon. “I really thought she would do it,” said Gelete Burka, who placed third in her international debut, in the junior women’s race.

Her trainers expect to see many more years of Kidane (who lead her short course teammates to a collective silver medal as well) on the podium, not just in cross country, but also on the track, where she placed seventh over 5000 metres at the Sydney Olympics.

Kidane has since further marked her place on the Ethiopian running scene by winning the Great Ethiopian Run 10K on the road last November, and the women’s long race at the national cross country championships in March. She will now turn her attention for the year to the track, and plans to run both the 5000 and 10,000 metres.

And after each successful major race, Kidane will possibly reflect on her beginnings and the input of her uncle, as she did while collecting her first senior World title in Lausanne.

“At the end, I think of him, and I thank him,” she said. “I am here because of his efforts – although it is God who makes everything possible – but he did a lot, and he rejoices in my achievements.”

Sabrina Yohannes for the IAAF