Halfway through the women's 5,000m race Saturday at the Boston Indoor Games, Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia was left with nothing chasing her closely but her pompom of a ponytail.
She wore diamond earrings and strode so elegantly and lightly in pursuit of a world record that her feet could not be heard on the banked track at the Reggie Lewis Center.
Sprinting the final 200m in a searing 29.72 seconds, Dibaba finished in 14 minutes 27.42 seconds, shattering her own record by more than 5 seconds and collecting a US$25,000 bonus prize. She closed with such whispery quickness that officials had to rush to unfurl the tape across the finish line.
"I couldn't hear her breathing hard behind me," Marina Muncan, a pacesetter from Serbia, said of Dibaba's gracefulness. "It was like she wasn't there."
On Friday, Dibaba will run the 3,000m in the Millrose Games in New York. This is the beginning of an expectant year in which she plans to attempt outdoor world records at 5,000m and 10,000m, events in which Dibaba is an early favorite for the 2007 world track and field championships in Osaka, Japan, and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
At 21, Dibaba and her countrywoman Meseret Defar, the world outdoor record-holder and the 2004 Olympic champion in the 5,000, are the latest female track sensations from Ethiopia. It is one of the world's poorest countries, but now the richest in terms of distance running at major championships.
At the 2005 world championships in Helsinki, Finland, Dibaba became the first woman to win the 5,000 and the 10,000 as Ethiopia swept all six available medals. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Ethiopian women took four of the six available medals in the two events. Defar won the 5,000 in Athens while Dibaba finished third. Dibaba's older sister, Ejegayehou (pronounced edge-uh-GUY-you), won a silver medal in the 10,000.
Men led the way
Ethiopian men have been a major force in distance running since Abebe Bikila, competing barefoot, won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome. Women have emerged only in the past 15 years, since Derartu Tulu, a cousin of the Dibabas, prevailed in the 10,000 at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Tulu, dressed modestly in a T-shirt and shorts instead of a more revealing singlet and briefs, proved such a surprise at Barcelona that the stadium announcer mistakenly said she was from Kenya, Ethiopia's East African running rival.
No one makes that mistake now, not after Tulu won a gold medal again in the 10,000 at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, took a bronze medal in Athens and became a cultural force, helping to change the expectation for Ethiopian women that they should lead marginalized lives of domestic subservience.
"She has been a great inspiration for Ethiopian and African women," Tirunesh (pronounced TEE-roo-nesh) said of her cousin, Tulu, speaking through an interpreter. "When parents try to oppose their daughters' running, they can say, 'One day we can be the same like Derartu."'
The emergence of Ethiopian women is a complicated success dependent on cultural, political, geographical and even gastronomical factors. A brutal Marxist dictatorship, known as the Dergue, led Ethiopia to boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics Los Angeles (in support of the Soviet bloc) and the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul (in support of North Korea). Athletes found it difficult to gain exit visas during that period, and international development of distance running was stunted.