Athletics: Dibaba on a long run to history

Today's world record attempt in Sheffield is just one milestone for the awesome Ethiopian
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The Independent Online

Much will depend on the prevailing conditions in the notoriously draughty Don Valley Stadium, though having flown like the wind in Hel-sinki's cold, damp Olympic Stadium the formidable Dibaba has to be considered a match for any trackside clock. The searing last-lap sprints that took her to a historic 5,000m-10,000m distance-running double at the World Championships in the Finnish capital have left her with only Olympic gold and an outdoor world record missing from a curriculum vitae upon which her age happens to be just 20 years and two months.

Dibaba's date of birth having been listed as October 1985 on all official documentation in Helsinki, it had been reported that she was 19 when she swept to her victories in Finland, and that she had been 17 when she had won the 5,000m title in Paris in 2003. "I was born in June 1985," she said, definitively, for the record. "I am 20 now. I was 18 when I won in Paris."

Dibaba was in fact 18 years and 90 days when she struck gold in the Stade de France, the youngest-ever winner in the World Championships. Two years on, she still has the same cherub-cheeked look, this baby-faced assassin of the track, though she has matured into the untouchable mistress of all racing surfaces. She has two more outdoor world track titles, plus a world cross-country double, one world indoor record and a world record time on the roads to her name - a name that means "you are good" in Amharic. As she reflected in between victories in Helsinki: "When I won in Paris, everybody called me 'the little girl'. I am no longer that little girl. I am afraid of no one in competition."

Such fearlessness has elevated the diminutive Dibaba, all 5ft 1in of her, up among the lofty all-time greats of distance running. She is the first athlete - male or female - to win World Championship 5,000m and 10,000m titles, and the first woman to achieve that particular double in senior global competition. Only five athletes have achieved the feat at an Olympic Games, all male: Hannes Kolehmainen in 1912; Emil Zatopek in 1952; Vladimir Kuts in 1956; Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976; and Miruts Yifter in 1980. Even the two great barrier-breaking Ethiopians of recent times, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, have failed to emulate the double deeds of their compatriot Yifter.

Instead, it is Dibaba who has followed in the footsteps of the man who was christened "Yifter the Shifter" when he burned off Steve Ovett with a 54.6sec final lap in the Gateshead Games 5,000m in 1977. Ovett's time on the last lap that day was 59sec. It is little wonder that Paula Radcliffe was left awestruck by Dibaba's 58sec finale on her 25th circuit in the 10,000m final in Helsinki. "It's frightening really," the Briton confessed. "Even in many of the world- class 800m races they can't do 58sec for the last lap."

Dibaba's final lap in the 5,000m final eight days ago - in which she led another Ethiopian clean sweep of the medals, with her 23-year-old sister, Ejagayou, picking up a second bronze - was timed at 58.19sec. Kelly Holmes' second and final lap when she won Olympic 800m gold in Athens last summer was 58.68sec.

Equally striking in both finals in Helsinki was the smoothness of Dibaba's running and the look of effortlessness etched upon her face until the bell chimed her into decisive action.

The target in Sheffield this afternoon for the young woman who won twice as many gold medals in Helsinki as the Great Britain team is 12-and-a-half laps at an average of 69sec per circuit. Should she succeed, with a little help from a trio of pacemakers and her big sister, it would be the first world record set on an outdoor track in Britain for five days short of 20 years. The last was achieved at Crystal Palace on 26 August 1985, when Zola Budd clocked 14:48.07 over the same 5,000m distance.

"I definitely feel that the world record time is within me," Dibaba maintained. "If we get the right weather in Sheffield, the field is strong enough to go quicker than 14min 24sec. The record is certainly something I want to get - if not this year, then next. It belongs in Ethiopia."

Elvan Abeylegesse, who broke the record ahead of Dibaba in Bergen last summer, was Hewan Abeye of Ethiopia before she switched allegiance to Turkey. Dibaba herself was very nearly lost to Ethiopian running. When she was 14 her parents sent her from the family farm in Bekoji to study at high school in Addis Ababa, but she missed the registration deadline, and says she would have been given away in marriage if she had returned home. Instead, she stayed in Addis and, encouraged by her sister and her celebrated cousin Deratu Tulu, she took up running as a member of the Prisons Corrections Athletics Club.

The rest is history. The younger Dibaba has yet to match the pair of Olympic 10,000m titles won by Tulu, but she has two World Championships gold medals more than her 33-year-old training partner and mentor has managed. "Deratu has always been my inspiration," Dibaba said. "Eventually, I would like to do the marathon, like her, but not in the next 10 years. I want to win everything on the track first."

That is another frightening thought for the rest of the distance-running world.