Athletics: Paula alive to the extended Tulu shadow

Chip off the old block as little Ethiopian takes giant step forward to turn heat on Radcliffe

She did win a 10,000m silver medal at the 1999 World Championship in Seville and has earnt two world titles at cross- country and three at the half-marathon distance. At 31, though, Radcliffe's quest for gold at a major global track-and-field championship continues at the 2005 IAAF World Championships, which open in Helsinki on Saturday. As the world's fastest-ever female marathon runner by some distance, she may well find her Midas touch on the roads of the Finnish capital on the final day of competition, Sunday 14 August - despite the presence in the field of her old nemesis, the 33-year-old Tulu.

If the Briton is to open her attempted double with a victory in the 10,000m next Saturday, however, she will have to find a way of getting past and staying ahead of the young relative Tulu has been grooming in her own formidable image.

Tirunesh Dibaba was 14 when she moved from her family home in the Arsi highlands of Ethiopia to live with her sister, Ejegayehou, and study at high school in Addis Ababa. By chance, she happened to miss the school registration deadline and, rather than return home to be given away in marriage by her parents, she stayed in Addis and took up running, under the guidance of her elder sister and her famous cousin, Tulu. She joined the Prisons Corrections Athletics Club and within a year she was running for her country in the World Cross Country Championships.

While Radcliffe picked her way through the Ostend mud to claim her first senior world cross-country title ahead of another of her great Ethiopian rivals, Gete Wami, the 15-year-old Dibaba finished fifth in the junior race for under-20s.

Four years on, while Radcliffe has established herself as the pre-eminent female force in world marathon running, despite the bitter disappointment of failing to finish in the Olympics last year, Dibaba has emerged as the leading lady of distance running on the track. At 18 years and 90 days, she became the youngest ever track-and-field world champion when she sprinted to victory in the 5,000m at Paris in 2003. And, if third place in the Olympic 5,000m final last summer could be described as a backward step for someone who was still 19 at the time, the diminutive East African has taken a giant leap forward in 2005.

Dibaba has been not so much a cut above the rest as simply invincible. She shattered the world indoor 5,000m record in January, completed a short-course and long-course double at the World Cross Country Championships in March and equalled Radcliffe's world best time for 5km on the road, 14min 51sec, in April.

On the track this summer she leads the world rankings at 5,000m and 10,000m. On her debut at the longer distance, in the cold and rain at Sollentuna in Sweden in June, she clocked 30min 15.67sec - a time Radcliffe has surpassed just once, when she missed the 30-minute barrier by 1.09sec at the European Champion-ships in Munich in 2002.

Just a month past her 20th birthday, Dibaba has become the baby-faced assassin of women's distance running. At 5ft 1in and with a distinctive, upright carriage, she bears a striking resemblance to her cousin, the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. "I train with Tirunesh, so I know how good she can be," Tulu said. "She is going to be a bigger star than me."

Radcliffe is going to have to be at or very close to her best next Saturday to have any hope of beating Dibaba - or, indeed, of beating the other three Ethiopians in the field: Berhane Adere and Werknesh Kidane, who were first and second in the 10,000m at the 2003 World Championships, and Ejegayehou Dibaba, Tirunesh's 23-year-old sister, the Olympic silver medallist at the distance in Athens last year.

"I know what the opposition is going to be in the 10,000m but I haven't really thought about it," Radcliffe maintained. "The biggest factors in making my decision to run the 10,000m as well as the marathon were knowing I was in shape to run well in it and knowing that running it wasn't going to affect me in the marathon in any way. It's more about how I'm going to perform. I can't control how anyone else is going to run out there."

Given the strength of the Ethiopian opposition, it is the boldest of challenges that Radcliffe has assumed. A 10,000m medal of any description would be a notable achievement for her. It would also be a timely fillip eight days ahead of her big shot at gold on a testing three-lap marathon course - a psychological booster after her recent mentally draining experiences on the track.

Not that Radcliffe is dwelling on her failure to finish the 10,000m in the Olympic Games in Athens, five days after grinding to a halt in the marathon, or on her surprise 5,000m defeat at the European Cup in Portugal in June, when she was suffering from a twisted back caused in a fall during a 1500m race in Eugene, Oregon, two weeks previously.

"I guess what happened last year has made me hungrier when I stand on the start line," she said, "but I'm a lot more relaxed and a lot more positive now than I was a year ago. Towards the end of my preparation for Athens, when I started to get injury problems, I was really worrying and getting stressed about it.

"I decided that the same thing wasn't going to happen this year. It was going to be a more relaxed build-up, even when I had the hiccup at the European Cup. I think this year I've been a tougher person and stayed calmer because of that."

The first test of that new-found resolve comes next Saturday night, against the younger Dibaba and the rest of the Ethiopians in the 10,000m. If Radcliffe were to emerge as the tough of the Helsinki track, she would be halfway to a famous double achieved just once before in a global championship - by Emil Zatopek as part of his Olympic 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon treble in the Finnish capital in 1952.

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