A long-distance legacy stays in the Ethiopian family
By Jere Longman, International Herald Tribune
BEIJING: With her trademark blistering kick, Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia ran the second-fastest time by a woman in the 10,000 meters on Friday night to take the gold medal in the opening track race of the Beijing Games.
After a punishing 60-second final lap, Dibaba crossed the line in 29 minutes 54.66 seconds, a time surpassed only by the 29:31.78 run by Wang Junxia of China in 1993. Dibaba's victory, on a relatively cool and dry night, served as an early counterpoint to fears that smog and heat would disrupt distance performances at these Olympics.
On the bell lap of the 25-lap race, Dibaba blew past the eventual silver medalist Elvan Abeylegesse, a native of Ethiopia who competes for Turkey and who delivered a time of 29:56.34, the third-fastest ever. The two ran alone for the final five laps.
Shalane Flanagan of the United States took third in 30:22.22 with a surge over the final two laps, despite intestinal problems earlier in the week and confusion about her placing as the lead runners began to lap stragglers.
"I had no idea what place it was," Flanagan said. "My coach told me just to remain as calm as possible. With two laps to go, I turned on the competitive juices and let it go."
Flanagan's finish further established the American women as a resurgent force in international distance running, following a bronze in the marathon by Deena Kastor at the 2004 Athens Games and a third-place finish by Kara Goucher in the 10,000 at the 2007 world championships.
"I hate the word fluke," said Goucher, who finished 10th on Friday in 30:55.16. "It's been said about me. I think Shalane proved tonight U.S. running is at the world level."
But it has yet to match the pre-eminence of the East Africans.
The 10,000 has come to represent the sporting ascendance of women from sub-Saharan Africa and of Ethiopia's dominance over its fierce rival, Kenya, at major international championships.
Ethiopian women have won five Olympic gold medals in distance running, while Kenyan women have yet to win their first.
Ethiopia has taken first place in three of the last five women's 10,000 meters at the Olympics. And it has kept it in the family.
Derartu Tulu, a cousin of Dibaba's, became the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal by taking first in the 10,000 at the 1992 Barcelona Games. She won the event again at the 2000 Sydney Games, and has come to represent the possibility of women escaping a life of forced subservience.
"From Tulu, we are accustomed to the 10,000," Dibaba said after Friday's victory. "It goes without saying that we have to do well. The footsteps of Tulu have to repeat themselves."
Dibaba and Tulu come from the same high-altitude village, Bekoji, in Ethiopia's southern highlands. So does Dibaba's sister Ejegayehu, who finished 14th on Friday after taking the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics.
Also from this famed running center are Fatuma Roba, the 1996 women's Olympic marathon champion, and Kenenisa Bekele, the 2004 Olympic champion in the men's 10,000 meters and silver medalist in the 5,000.
Bekoji is located on a verdant plateau, at about 10,000 feet, and is as bountiful at producing runners as it is producing wheat and teff, a millet that is rich in calcium, protein and iron.
Running is the favored and necessary mode of transportation for many young children in their trips to and from school and in their performance of such chores as hauling water and firewood.
The Dibabas grew up in a conical mud hut that did not have electricity. Their parents, who are subsistence farmers, and the rest of the family had to go to a local hotel to watch Tulu win the 10,000 at the Barcelona Games.
Tirunesh Dibaba's elite running career got an inadvertent start.
In 2001, as a 16-year-old, Tirunesh Dibaba traveled to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to join Ejegayehu and another relative who is variously described as a sister and a cousin.
Tirunesh Dibaba said in an interview last year that she entered a cross-country race, finished fifth and was signed to run for the nation's prison police, a common practice in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Two years later, Tirunesh Dibaba became the youngest track athlete to win a world title, crossing the line first in the 5,000 meters at the world track and field championships in Paris.
Her style of running emulates that of Miruts Yifter, who was known as Yifter the Shifter for a last-lap kick that propelled him to gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Tirunesh Dibaba could become the first woman to win both events in the same Olympics if she runs the 5,000, an event at which she holds the world record of 14:11.15.
At this point, she is uncertain about competing in two events. But there was never any doubt that Tirunesh Dibaba would prevail with her searing kick in the 10,000 final.
"My expectation was to get gold," she said, "beautiful, everlasting gold