News14 Sep 2004

Olympic champion Defar heads the Ethiopian onslaught set for the World Athletics Final


Meseret Defar celebrates winning the 5000m Olympic gold (© Getty Images)

Olympic champion Meseret Defar heads a group of five Ethiopian women who have qualified and confirmed their attendance to run in either the 3000m or 5000m races at this coming weekend’s World Athletics Final in Monaco.

Suddenly from a position of a 'mere' Athens team reserve, Defar now heads her country’s bid at the second edition of the World Athletics Final. Last year in the final she ran the 3000m finishing fourth. Sabrina Yohannes profiles the Olympic 5000m champion -

When Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar won the Olympic women’s 5000 metres in Athens, it was the second time in a year that she had upstaged a better-known compatriot to take a global title.

Defar unseated the then-defending 3000m champion Berhane Adere at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest in March, but she had gone into the championships having already beaten Adere earlier in the indoor season.

My morale had taken a beating

In Athens, however, Defar had been entered in the 5000 metres as a reserve member of the Ethiopian team, and that knowledge made her victory that much sweeter when she won the final in 14:45.65, ahead of Kenya’s Isabella Ochichi and Ethiopia’s World champion Tirunesh Dibaba.

“It is God who brought me to this place,” said Defar, 20, who made the sign of the cross on the finish line and immediately dropped to her knees and kissed the ground. When Dibaba then patted her on the back, the two embraced, with Defar still on her knees. Only after the moment had passed and the third and last member of the team to finish, Sentayehu Ejigu, who placed 10th, approached the pair further down the track, did Defar overcome her initial emotions enough to exuberantly jump up before hugging Ejigu and Dibaba.

“I had been entered as the fourth member of the team, and my morale had taken a beating,” said Defar later that evening, her eyes starting to well up as she recalled the uncertainty and disappointment she had felt at the time. “God saw me through,” she said. “God, and the support of my family and fiance.” Tears streamed down her face, and she leaned forward on a stadium railing, placed her head on her arms and wept.

Nerve problems

Ethiopian team selections for global track championships are made primarily on the basis of season best times for each event. Defar, who possesses a strong finishing kick that she used to devastating effect to win the 3000 and 5,000 metres at the 2002 World junior championships, had fallen ill at the 2003 World championships and failed to make the 5000m final. She made up for it with an All Africa Games victory later that year, and set her sights on making the Olympic team. She had an excellent 2004 indoor season, but outdoors, things did not go so well.

“I ran in Oslo and Rome with pain in my left arm,” she said. “I had muscle problems that also led to nerve problems and gave me pain up and down my arm.” Her 2004 best time for 5000 metres, 14:44.81 clocked in Rome, was only the sixth fastest Ethiopian time. But as two of the six were clearly going to be on the 10,000 metres team, that made Defar potentially the fourth 5000m team member behind the the Dibaba sisters, Tirunesh and Ejegayehu, and Ejigu.

As Ejigayehu Dibaba also had the fastest Ethiopian 10,000m time in 2004, there was still a possibility for Defar to make the 5000m team if the older Dibaba ran the longer event at the Olympics. But when the team was announced, Ejegayehu Dibaba had been listed as the reserve 10,000m team member, and been entered in the shorter event, making Defar merely the 5000 metre reserve.

“It is correct, I am the fourth qualifier,” said Defar, but that knowledge provided little comfort. “Every time I thought about the possibility of my not running, I cried.” Her family, and her fiancé, Teodros Hailu, a former soccer player with the Banks sports club in Addis Ababa of which Defar is a member, comforted and encouraged her.

Adere's demotion was Defar's comfort

Then some days before the team was due to leave for Athens, the World 10,000 metre champion Adere was dropped from the 10,000 metre team. It meant Ejegayehu Dibaba would be running the longer event after all, and Defar would make the 5000m team. But the simple fact that she still appeared on the Athens entry lists as the reserve member was enough to re-invoke some of the emotions Defar had felt earlier.

Once on the track, she focused on her goal: she was going to see Ethiopia’s flag fly above the podium. “The plan we devised with our coach, Dr. Wolde Meskel Kostre, was for the three of us to aim to take all three medals,” said Defar, whose last name means ‘bold’ in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, and who unleashed what is for her a trademark kick in the final 200m to win. “First and third is a great outcome,” said Defar. A key rival in the race had been Ethiopian-born Turk World record-holder Elvan Abeylegesse, who ended up finishing 12th.

A city girl

Defar joins fellow Olympic 5000m champion Million Wolde, who won the men’s title in Sydney, in a small minority on the list of elite Ethiopian distance runners: both hail from Addis Ababa. Although Defar grew up close enough to the highland capital to call it her hometown, she lived far enough on the outskirts that long treks to collect firewood were a routine part of her childhood. She translated that experience into track victories at elementary and secondary schools competitions before becoming a World Youth medallist in 1999.

Although she is a lesser-known name than Adere or Tirunesh Dibaba, who is a cousin of the double Olympic 10,000m champion Derartu Tulu, Defar has been trading titles with Dibaba for a couple of years. She took the 2002 World Junior 5000m title ahead of Dibaba but the order was reversed in the 2003 national championships 5000m, although Defar did win the 3000m title, which she took for the third straight year in 2004.

Seven set for Monaco

Both women will be running in Monaco this weekend, as will the older Dibaba, who took 10,000m silver in Athens,Werknesh Kidane, and Derartu Tulu. Possibly Sentayehu Ejigu  and Eyerusalem Kuma might also run if other qualified athletes are unavailable.

Sabrina Yohannes for the IAAF

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