Athletics: Dibaba leads Ethiopia's teenage triumph in mud

Youngest World Championship winner beats cousin Tulu into fifth place in Great North Cross-Country as compatriot wins men's race
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The Independent Online

It is almost 12 years now since Deratu Tulu opened a new frontier for women's distance running with her 10,000 metres victory at the Barcelona Olympics. The first black African woman to win an Olympic title, Tulu's success has inspired a whole continent. It has inspired her family, too.

Tirunesh Dibaba was seven when her cousin returned to the Arsi highlands of Ethiopia with Olympic gold from Barcelona. "I wanted to become someone, too," she recalled, "but I never thought I would be strong enough to be like Deratu."

On Saturday, in the mudbath grounds of Exhibition Park on the outskirts of Newcastle, Tulu was not strong enough to keep up with her cousin. She had to settle for fifth place in the women's 6.3-kilometre race in the View From Great North Cross-Country as Dibaba sprinted to victory ahead of the Ethiopian-born Turk Elvan Abeylegesse in the final 200m.

At the tender age of 18, Dibaba is rapidly establishing herself as a formidable force on the global distance running stage. In Paris last August she became the youngest-ever winner of a World Championship title, outsprinting an impressive field (which included the European 5,000m champion, Marta Dominguez; the world short-course cross-country champion, Edith Masai; the world 10,000m champion, Berhane Adere; the Olympic 5,000m champion, Gabriela Szabo; and the Olympic 5,000m silver medallist, Sonia O'Sullivan) to take the 5,000m crown just 36 days past her 18th birthday.

On Saturday, the smooth-striding Dibaba added the scalp of her 31-year-old cousin to her list of conquests; they had raced together just once before, when Tulu finished second and Dibaba third in the 5,000m at the World Athletics Finals in Monaco last September. "I am happy for her," Tulu said, looking more of a mother than a cousin as she painstakingly dabbed every fleck of Tyneside mud from Dibaba's baby-faced features. "We train together in Addis Ababa now, so I know how good she has become. She is going to be a bigger star than me." That remains to be seen. After all, Tulu has won two Olympic 10,000m titles, one World Championship 10,000m crown and three World Cross-Country Championships.

Dibaba, though, has already been bestowed stellar status in her homeland. On her return from the World Championships, she was paraded through the streets of Addis Ababa with Ethiopia's other medal winners and presented with the deeds to a plot of land in the country's capital. "I haven't done anything with it yet," she said on Saturday. "I hope to build a home there eventually." It might have been different for her. The daughter of subsistence farmers in the Arsi region, Dibaba first came to Addis as a 14-year-old to study in high school and live with her elder sister, Ejigayehu, and another cousin, Bekelu Dibaba, who are both international runners. "I missed the school registration deadline," she recalled, "and if I'd gone back home my parents would have given me away in marriage." Instead, her sister and cousin persuaded her to stay in Addis and take up running. She joined the Prisons' Corrections Athletics Club and the rest is becoming distance running history in the making.

Four years on, Dibaba has her sights on capturing an impressive global double in March: the 5,000m title at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest, followed by the senior title at the World Cross-Country Championships in Brussels later the same month.

She is likely to be joined in the Belgian capital by Sileshi Sihine, her 19-year-old compatriot, who prevailed ahead of the Kenyans Eliud Kipchoge and Paul Tergat in the men's 8.7km race on Saturday - a day of triumph in the Tyneside mud for the fleet-footed teenagers of Ethiopia.