The headline in the Daily Nation spelt it out in black and white on Monday morning. “Kenyans beware: Tiru’s back,” it trumpeted. Sadly, “Tiru” – Tirunesh Dibaba – has never received the global recognition she deserves as a sporting phenomenon of the 21st century.
In Kenya, though, they fully appreciate the giant talent of the 5ft 1in Ethiopian who achieved a historic double at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing – and who, after 14 months of injuries, has hit the comeback trail with the intention of retaining her 5,000 metres and 10,000m titles in London this summer.
The 10km San Silvestre Vallecana road race in Madrid on New Year’s Eve was the first competitive outing for Dibaba since the 5,000m at the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace in August 2010. She returned with a victory, sprinting past her compatriot Gelete Burka, the 2008 world indoor 1500m champion, to win in 31min 30sec.
“It is my first competition for so long, so I have to be happy,” Dibaba said. “I am now fully recovered from injuries and my training is going well. I look forward to defending my two Olympic titles in London.”
That Dibaba is back and in winning form is a warning to the Kenyan who picked up her mantle as the dominant force in women’s distance running on the track last summer. It also raises the prospect of another gripping duel – or couple of duels – in the showpiece London Olympic track-and-field arena this summer. Dibaba versus Vivian Cheruiyot at 5,000m and 10,000m promises to be every bit as thrilling as Usain Bolt v Yohan Blake (and Tyson Gay) at 100m and 200m, Mo Farah v Kenenisa Bekele at 5,000m and 10,000m and Jessica Ennis v Tatyana Chernova over the seven events of the heptathlon.
When Dibaba signed off on the track with her 5,000m win at Crystal Palace the summer before last, Cheruiyot was almost two seconds down in second place. In the absence of the injured Ethiopian, though, Cheruiyot swept to victory in both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, last summer. She also won the world cross-country title and was undefeated on the track.
Cheruiyot is 28, Dibaba’s elder by two years. She was also in action on New Year’s Eve, when she won the Sivestrelauf 5km road race at Bolzano in Italy in 16min 05sec. She has “a couple of races” planned for the indoor season but she does not intend to compete at the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March. Dibaba became the first woman to complete the double of 5,000m and 10,000m when she won her two Olympic golds in Beijing four years ago. She had long been destined for greatness. Just 90 days past her 18th birthday, she became the youngest ever individual World Championships gold medallist when she won the 5,000m in the Stade de France in 2003.
Dibaba is married to Sileshi Sihini, twice a silver medallist behind Bekele in Olympic men’s 10,000m finals. She is a cousin of Deratu Tulu, who became the first black African woman to claim Olympic gold when she won the 10,000m in Barcelona back in 1992.
Tulu, of course, was the great nemesis of Paula Radcliffe on the track and in cross-country races. She never quite mastered the marathon in the fashion of the great British runner – who holds the world record at 2hr 15min 25sec – but now her cousin is looking towards the challenge of the 26.2 mile event.
“Yes, I would like to tackle the marathon in the years to come,” Dibaba said, “but Paula Radcliffe’s world record is really tough to break.”