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Beauty And Beyond: Women To Watch At London 2012

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Beauty And Beyond: Women To Watch At London 2012

Clayton Goodwin continues our Olympics memory-lane series by focusing on the formidable women’s long-distance runners. As he reports, the ones to watch at the London 2012 Olympics are the Dibaba sisters.

Saturday, 18 February 2012. International athletics meeting at the Birmingham Indoor Arena. As we watched Genzebe Dibaba show the other competitors a clean pair of heels in the 1,500 metres, while winter rain and hail bombarded the streets outside, one of Britain’s most experienced and authoritative athletics journalists, a man who can well remember the last time the Olympic Games were held in London back in 1948, turned to me and said: “Aren’t they the most good-looking family in sport? I know that they are excellent athletes, but the Dibaba sisters are so very beautiful with it.”

His point of view has much to commend it. Only a few days earlier, I had shared the same hotel as the athletes in the English championships at Sheffield. Looking at one runner who was a former beauty contestant and model, I mused how she was much more attractive now and how the looks of the slim, well-exercised ladies of the track put to shame the over-painted models of the catwalk. The Dibaba sisters (Ejegayehu, Tirunesh and Genzebe) excel here, too, as they do in the arena … and it is their ability in the arena on which I want to concentrate here.

The East African dominance of women’s long-distance running in the Olympic Games of the 21st century is almost complete, and the Dibaba family from the Oromo ethnic group of the high altitude Arsi district in Ethiopia are to the fore. Indeed, the Ethiopians and Kenyans have inherited the track empire of the old Soviet Union. For three decades from the 1950s, the Russians and their allied nationalities had the advantage of being professional in what was still very much an amateur environment. They achieved that by giving their sportsmen/women state employment or work with the military which allowed them the time, the facilities and the security to develop their abilities to the full.

The nearest equivalent, I suppose, has been the American collegiate system. Then shortly after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviet Union fell apart, disintegrating into its component parts (which are now independent countries). As world athletics became professional from thence, up stepped the Ethiopians and the Kenyans, and, especially the Dibaba family.

Although excellence at world level has been no guarantee of success at the Olympic Games, as Berhane Adere and Edith Masai, to name just two, have found to their cost, the Dibabas, spearheaded by the formidable 26-year-old double gold-medallist Tirunesh, have not had that problem.

Now all three Dibaba sisters are in with a very good chance of winning medals in London, provided that – with the limitation placed on the number of representatives from one country allowed in any event – they do not eliminate each other from the Ethiopian team. As this piece is concerned with the Olympic Games, I have hardly referred to the numerous world records which the sisters and their compatriots and contemporaries have achieved.

Not that Tirunesh was the first of the family to strike gold. That honour went to their cousin Derartu Tulu, now 40 years old, the seventh of 10 children, who won the 10,000 metres in 31:06.22 at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

The then 20-year-old Derartu sped past the South African Elana Meyer at the bell and stayed in front – afterwards inviting the South African to join her in a lap of honour, which was seen as being an appreciated gesture of African harmony in welcoming South Africa back to the Games after its apartheid-induced exclusion for a generation.

It was the first Olympic Games gold medal won by a female athlete from an African country. After that Derartu struggled with knee injuries which upset her form for several years so that she finished only fourth at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA. The birth of her daughter two years later, however, inspired a resurgence in her success.

Derartu went on to win the 10,000 metres again at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, in 30:17.49 – with a last lap burst of 60.3 seconds which destroyed the challenge of her compatriot, Gete Wami. The latter was very much the bridesmaid as she had finished third in this event four years earlier and was third in Sydney also in the 5,000 metres.

The following year, Derartu won gold at the World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, as well as the marathons in London and Tokyo. Although she was coming up to the veteran stage for athletes, the Ethiopian retained sufficient form to win the bronze medal in 30:26.42 at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Now, however, it was time for a new generation to take over as Derartu’s cousin, Ejegayehu Dibaba, took silver in 30:24.98, both behind the winner Xing Huina in 30:24.36.

Ejegayehu, now 30 years old, may not have attained the fame and records of her younger sister but – including winning bronze in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in 2007 – she has always been “there or thereabouts”.

Tirunesh, three years younger, is the complete long-distance athlete, and is  tres by 15:41.40 to 15:42.74 and the 10,000 metres by 29:54.66, an Olympic Games record, to 29:56.34.

East Africans took the longer distance records by storm in the Chinese capital. Pamela Jelimo won the 800 metres, just ahead of Janeth Jepkosgei, while Nancy Jebet Lagat won the 1,500 metres, and Catherine Ndereba was second in the marathon (as she had been four years earlier in Athens). Yes – and Meseret Defar, another Ethiopian, was third in the 5,000 metres.

Now we come to Defar, the one runner who, until the advent of Vivian Cheruiyot, whose story I hope to be allowed to tell in a later article, has consistently threatened the supremacy of the Dibabas.

famed for her devastating sprint finish. She has won gold in four World Champioships between 2003 and 2007, although she pulled out with injury just before the same contest in Berlin in 2009. In addition, she has won five golds at all levels of the World Cross Country Championships.

After first making her name in the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, where she was third in the 5,000 metres while still only 18 years old, Tirunesh dominated the next Olympics in Beijing by winning gold in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.

In each event, Tirunesh fought out an enthralling duel with Elvan Abeylegesse, another Ethiopian who has run latterly for Turkey. Tirunesh won the 5,000 me-tres by 15:41.40 to 15:42.74 and the 10,000 metres by 29:54.66, an Olympic Games record, to 29:56.34.

East Africans took the longer distance records by storm in the Chinese capital. Pamela Jelimo won the 800 metres, just ahead of Janeth Jepkosgei, while Nancy Jebet Lagat won the 1,500 metres, and Catherine Ndereba was second in the marathon (as she had been four years earlier in Athens). Yes – and Meseret Defar, another Ethiopian, was third in the 5,000 metres.

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