WRITTEN FOR SKYSPORTS
Ethiopian distance-running legends, ‘King’ Kenenisa Bekele and ‘the baby-faced destroyer’ Tirunesh Dibaba, spoke to Nicola Bamford about life as the World’s finest long-distance athletes and their goals to maintain a global grip on supremacy during 2010...
The pair; known for their shy and modest demeanours, opened up to your writer on the eve of last weekend’s BUPA Great Edinburgh international cross-country – an event each was hotly tipped to win.
Dibaba, 24, glided majestically to a comfortable win over a stellar field, whilst Bekele’s defeat by three Kenyans sent shockwaves throughout the sport. The 27-year-old had been unbeaten over the terrain in nine years; still, it would be foolish to think that the World will this year be deprived of the accustomed fireworks from this Ethiopian duo.
Bekele and Dibaba; with a collective total of 45 Olympic and World gold medals between them, are understandably familiar with the limelight. Bekele has held World records at 5,000m (12:37.35) and 10,000m (26:20.31) since 2004 and has held at least one Olympic or World title since 2001.
Dibaba’s athletic resume in turn, stands up strong against her African counterpart; with a global title each year since 2003, a World 5,000m track and 15km road record (14:11.15 and 46:28) and matches the 5,000m/10,000m double Olympic gold-medal-winning exploits of Bekele from the Beijing Games in the summer of 2008.
The pair originate from the town of Bekoji in the Oromia region of Ethiopia and hone their incredible endurance, speed and scintillating finishing kicks in and around Addis Ababa.
Inhabiting a plush hotel in the Scottish capital for their latest competition and pay-day, the King and Queen of the track are away from home during the Ethiopian celebration of Christmas; each athlete described their trip as an obligation to their career and hoped an impressive result at Holyrood Park would offer a gift to loved ones back home.
Family is evidently very important to the talented twosome. Bekele; a fan of Chelsea and Barcelona football clubs, recovered from losing his 18-year-old fiancée to a heart-attack on a training run together in 2005 to marry to a famous Ethiopian actress and have two young daughters. His younger brother, Tariku is the reigning World indoor 3,000m Champion and is sole, trusted training partner:
“He is a great runner and I think in the future he could be a great champion; maybe better than me. I enjoy training with him - he helps to push and motivate me,” Bekele explained of the confidant he once encountered a lion with during a run.
Dibaba meanwhile, is the fourth of six children and she too comes from a family of World-class athletes: “We are very lucky to be runners and to do so many things like train together,” she revealed.
The family link of talent does not stop there either, as Dibaba is married to 2004 and 2008 Olympic 10,000 meter silver-medalist, Sileshi Sihine and Derartu Tulu; the 2000 Olympic 10,000m Champion, is her cousin.
Clearly genetics have played a part in the success of the duo but a vast amount of hard work hasn’t gone amiss either. Bekele trains around 100-miles per week, covering 12-15-miles each day over two sessions. Track and gym training in Addis and on the hills just outside of the area affectionately named ‘runner’s paradise’, Bekele is back to the day job following a four-month sabbatical after his eye-popping performances in the summer – a decision which led many to pinpoint as the reason for his down-fall in Edinburgh.
Dibaba on the other hand, took a shorter break which was evident in the World 15km road record she smashed in the Netherlands in November. Running since the age of 14, Dibaba; who is coached by her husband, revealed of her training:
“We don’t actually know how many miles or kilometres we run each week but we train for 90-minutes per day. We run a-lot in the forest and on the track three-times a week, and go in the gym a-lot, too.”
The pair name relaxing with their families and watching movies as their favourite ways to relax in their precious free time.
The ‘distance double’
The combination of inheriting superb genetics and willingly suffering from the tough daily grind has seen the duo achieve great things, and in particular, during the past two-years. Retaining his Olympic 10,000m title and upgrading his 2004 Athens 5,000m silver to gold, Bekele said of his sublime 2008 season:
“They were great times and achievements for me: it was fantastic to be the Olympic and World champion at the same time.”
Dibaba improved from Athens 5,000m bronze to also become victorious in ‘the distance double’ in China; achievements for which her club, the Prisons Police, bestowed the rank of Chief Superintendent for her services to club and country and the local hospital being named in her honour.
2009: Mixed fortunes
2009 brought mixed fortunes for the all-conquering pair, as Bekele replicated his double gold-medal-winning performances at the World Championships in Berlin; whilst Dibaba was reduced to a spectator role, following an untimely bout of illness; squashing her efforts for a fifth global title on the track.
Bekele’s achievements, although spectacular, did not however, capture the limelight as sprint sensation Usain Bolt; the Jamaican who took the 100m and 200m wins and World records, agreed; believing Bekele’s awesome talent did not receive the recognition it deserved due to his quieter personality.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Bekele insists, “Our distances are not the same and I do not mind.”
After additionally having to miss the chance to add a sixth World cross-country title to her belt in March through injury, luck was not on Dibaba’s side:
“Last year was not a good year for me, with missing the world cross and getting sick a month before Berlin. But I’ve come back to break the world 15km record and hopefully I will do the World cross-country Championships in March,” she explained.
The World record on the roads of Nijmegen two months ago represented Dibaba’s first race on the tarmac in five years and she paid the price for such a storming run; injuring her feet badly after ripping her shoes to shreds:
“I’m not 100% fully-recovered but I’m almost there. It was a great race for me; it showed I have a very great future on the roads,” she said.
Despite a major blip in the start to his competitive year, the self-coached Bekele remains confident of achievement remarkable things yet again in 2010. With no Championships for Ethiopians to contest, Bekele has set his sight on breaking two extremely tough World records on the track and taking the inaugural IAAF Diamond League series and prize-pot:
“My goals are to achieve many good results and this is a good year to break the World indoor 3,000m and World outdoor 5,000m records. I know it is not easy to break these, especially the 3,000m and the main thing for me is to stay healthy and do good performances,” he revealed.
The World will be eager to see whether Bekele achieves his first goal (the 3,000m record) in Birmingham next month and his rivals will be even keener to see what he can do, following recent proof that he is not invincible.
Two races that are uncertain for his schedule this year however, are the World cross-country Championships in March and a much-anticipated clash over 800m with Bolt:
“I’ve said before, I’ve achieved all I can at the World cross. I can’t say yet (whether to contest); I will decide with my family and manager. They give me advice – I have to listen to them. I would change my mind, though if it was introduced into the winter Olympics,” he said. “I never asked him (Bolt) officially to race me and I cannot say if I would beat him.”
Dibaba is equally determined for a show-stopping year:
“My plan is always to win and this year I plan to do a very good job with my performances. I will run indoors in Boston and attempt the 5,000m World record but will I not do the World indoor Championships. I will probably go for victory in the World cross (in Bydgoszcz, Poland),” she revealed.
Looking to the future
Following the same path in both his athletic and business career as his great predecessor, Haile Gebrselassie, Bekele is looking to the future by utilising his fame and wealth to build a hotel and training camp in Addis:
“I started my building a few months ago and it’s going well. I’m starting to think more about my training and after my career. I have taken advice from Haile and lots of business advisors,” he explained.
Dibaba, too expressed her interest in investing in some buildings in the future.
Bekele does however remain adamant not to bow to pressure to move up to the marathon yet in order to emulate Gebrselassie:
“I want to still enjoy the 3, 5 and 10,000m and have more achievements – it’s too early for me to start running marathons. I have enough time, you know. In the future maybe, but I can’t decide when yet,” he insisted.
No matter where fate decides to take these two remarkable athletes from now on, be assured that they will go the distance with phenomenal success.