Athletics: Her name means 'good'. She is great

At the age of 19, Tirunesh Dibaba has already more than lived up to her name. "Tirunesh" means "I am good" in Amharic, and in her teenage years the diminutive Ethiopian has firmly established herself as one of the world's truly exceptional distance runners. A world champion, Olympic bronze-medallist and world indoor record-holder at 5,000m on the track, her next target is a long-course and short-course double at the World Cross Country Champion-ships at the St Galmier Hippodrome in France next Saturday and Sunday.

"I am in the best form of my life," she said last week. "I am not scared of anyone at the moment." Indeed, it is Dibaba's rivals who have reason to be running scared as they finalise their preparations for the 8km long race on Saturday and the 4km short race on Sunday. From their perspective, Dibaba's form has been quite frightening.

The cloying mud of Holyrood Park and the presence of the reigning world long- course champion, Benita Johnson of Australia, failed to suck her out of her beautifully smooth stride in the Great Edinburgh Cross Country event in January. After outsprinting Johnson, the baby-faced Dibaba looked as fresh as she had done on the start-line.

Having remained poetic in motion over the most unyielding of terrain, Dibaba defeated even the clock on the boards in Boston a fortnight later. Running in the 5,000m at the Boston Indoor Games, she finished almost seven seconds inside the world indoor record held by her compatriot Berhane Adere, clocking 14min 2.93sec. "When I crossed the line I felt I still had more in my legs," she said.

The excess will no doubt be utilised in St Galmier, where Dibaba will be looking to follow in some celebrated family footsteps. The long race on Saturday is the main prize and Dibaba's cousin, Deratu Tulu, has won it on three occasions: in 1995, 1997 and 2000. The veteran Tulu is not in the Ethiopian team this year, but her trailblazing achievements will still be an inspiration to her cousin.

Dibaba was seven when Tulu returned to the family home in the Arsi highlands of Ethiopia with 10,000m gold from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It was the first Olympic success by a black African woman. "I wanted to become someone too," Dibaba recalled, "but I never thought I would be strong enough to be like Deratu."

In the Great North Cross Country meeting in Newcastle a year ago, Dibaba was strong enough to beat Tulu for the first time. She had already become a world champion. Indeed, when she sprinted to victory in the 5,000m final in Paris in the summer of 2003, Dibaba became, at the age of 18 years and 90 days, the youngest-ever winner of an individual event at the track-and-field World Championships. In Athens she had to settle for bronze in the Olympic 5,000m final, behind her compatriot Meseret Defar and the Kenyan Isabella Ochichi. In doing so, however, she was part of a notable family treble. In the 10,000m final, Dibaba's elder sister, Ejegayehou, took the silver medal and Tulu the bronze.

All three train together in Addis Ababa, although it all might have been very different. A daughter of subsistence farmers from the Arsi region, Tirunesh first arrived in the Ethiopian capital as a 14-year-old, to live with Ejegayehou and study in high school. "I missed the school registration deadline, and if I had gone back home my parents would have given me away in marriage," she reflected.

Instead, her sister persuaded her to stay in Addis and take up running. She joined the Prisons Corrections Athletics Club, and within a year she was representing her country on the international stage.

As a 15-year-old, the younger Dibaba sister ran in the junior (under-20) race at the 2001 World Cross Country Championships in Ostend. She finished fifth. A year later she placed second at Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin, and in Lausanne in 2003 she became the world junior cross-country champion. She nearly won the senior short-course race in Brussels last year, but was pipped by Edith Masai of Kenya. Her sister was also a silver-medal winner, finishing runner-up to Johnson in the long-course race, and Ejegayehou will also be contesting the 4km event in St Galmier next weekend.

At 5ft 1in, and with a distinctively upright carriage when she runs, Tirunesh bears a striking resemblance to Tulu - against whom her future achievements are inevitably going to be measured. "I train with her, so I know how good Tirunesh can be," Tulu told The Independent on Sunday. "She is going to be a bigger star than me."

Coming from a woman who has won two Olympic 10,000m titles, one world championship 10,000m crown and three world cross-country championships, that is quite a claim to make. Then again, though, Tirunesh Dibaba happens to possess a quite exceptional talent.