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.
Her on-track rivalry with Tirunesh is well-known. At the meeting in Birmingham on 18 February 2012, in which I saw Genzebe Dibaba running away with the 1,500 metres, Defar cruised to a crushing victory in the 3,000 metres, killing off the opposition in the first few laps and then increasing the gap.
She won in 8:31.56 with such accomplished athletes as Hellen Obiri, Gelete Burka, and Meselech Melkamu trailing behind her. That was just how it had been also when I had seen her on a cold, overcast evening last summer in the Diamond League outdoor meeting in Paris, and at a good many other events.
Born in Addis Ababa, and now aged 28 years, Meseret won the gold medal in the 5,000 metres at the Athens Olympics in 2004 in 14:45.65, with Isabella Ochichi second in 14:48.19 (and, as we have seen, the then teenage Tirunesh Dibaba third).
Meseret has been regularly successful at 5,000 metres outdoors and at 3,000 metres indoors – in the latter of which she has won gold at the World Championships in Budapest (2004), Moscow (2006), Valencia (2008), and Doha (2010).
Such has been her success over a range of distances and in so many different types of competition that it is felt that Meseret Defar has still not given full justice to her talents in the Olympic Games and still has a very strong point to prove.
Meseret’s mastery of recent indoor competition has been so complete that her defeat in the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul this March was probably the shock result of the competition.
Going for her fifth gold medal, Meseret was well clear of the field but with victory apparently hers, she seemed to be caught “napping” by an exceptional burst of speed from Hellen Obiri who beat her to the line in 8:37.16. Was it mere complacency or the first hint of vulnerability?
Now with Meseret and Cheruiyot in full flow, Tirunesh putting in some impressive road performances on her return to competition, and Ejegayehu still there or thereabouts as she has always been, the youngest sister, 21-year-old Genzebe Dibaba, has entered the fray.
After impressive form in junior competition, she got her first big break at senior level in replacing her injured sister Tirunesh in the 5,000 metres in Berlin in 2009. Although she failed to make the most of her immediate opportunities, Genzebe came up to her previous expectations by winning the 5,000 metres in a championship record time at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
Nevertheless her ability has been in evidence for some time since she ran a personal best time of 15:02.41 for the 1,500 metres at the 2008 Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, the same race in which Tirunesh set a new world record.
Perhaps by competing in several events from 1,500 metres to cross-country, Genzebe has not yet settled to her correct distance. In Birmingham on 18 February 2012, she started off like a rocket in running down the pace-maker and was not seriously challenged. She won in the stadium record time of 4:01.33, with the very good local favourite Hannah England, who, too, put in a strong performance, a long way behind on 4:09.79.
Three weeks after this success, the young Ethiopian crushed all opposition in winning the World Indoor Championships gold medal in Istanbul, Turkey, in 4:05.78, with Mariem Selsouli of Morocco, her only real challenger, a full two seconds behind her.
The success of the Ethiopian long-distance runners, both men and women, has often been attributed to their performing as a pack, with each helping the other. For some years they had more than the measure of the Kenyans, who tended to run as individuals – though that has changed now – and won the ire and jealousy of other nations.
It must help, therefore, if the runners come from the same district, from the same village and, even more so, from the same family. The Dibaba clan may indeed be the most good-looking family in sport – but they are also the most formidable.
Women’s long-distance running has a “loveliness” which goes beyond mere physical pulchritude. Male athletes dominate the sprints and shorter distances which depend on speed generated by muscle-power.
Everybody has heard of Usain Bolt – whereas his compatriots and female counterparts Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown are unknown internationally outside the cognoscenti of the track. That may hardly be fair but it is understandable.
Power is the defining quality of the male runner. It was that surge of power into the finishing straight – whatever the private genetic concerns beforehand – that first threw doubt on Caster Semenya in the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Yet it is a different matter when it comes to the long-distance races, in which other characteristics and tactics come into play to a much greater extent.
That is what makes women’s long-distance races the most aesthetically interesting in the programme. Those are the events that I always seek out on arriving at a venue. The interplay of changes of pace, the injections of speed and the saving of energy for the final sprint have their own poetic symmetry.
Yes, men, too, run tactically and long-distance women athletes have their own power, the power of endurance, but the concept and shaping of the race is different – and the tactics for the longer distances are not the same as for the middle distances in which nobody yielded anything in conventional power to Maria de Lurdes Mutola, the Mozambican.
Let yourself imagine – there is Meseret Defar well in the lead as they come to the bell, but Tirunesh Dubaba is noted for her blistering pace at the finish. Has Defar got far enough away to absorb her rival’s challenge and keep ahead, or will that lead be cut down and nullified?
And into the mix comes Vivian Cheruiyot, with perhaps another Dibaba, and Masai, and Obiri coming up very quickly, and a hitherto unknown Ethiopian or Kenyan who inevitably comes forward from nowhere on these occasions (and maybe a Russian) … then one stumbles … the finishing line is getting closer … who will win? I am so enthralled just thinking about that.