Dibaba and Cherono newest episode of long-running drama

Genzebe Dibaba
Genzebe Dibaba improves on the silver she won two years ago with gold in the 5000m (Getty Images)

Parker Morse for the IAAF

Not 2000m into the women’s 5000m final, the race for the World Junior Championship had already narrowed to a final clash between two of the most decorated Junior athletes at the championships, Genzege Dibaba of Ethiopia and Mercy Cherono of Kenya.

Between them, the pair has won the last three World Cross Country Championships junior races (Dibaba in 2008 and 2009, Cherono in 2010), and the last two 3000m titles (Cherono, the first athlete ever to repeat in that race).

National competition between Kenya and Ethiopia has been the central feature of the distance events for the last decade, but seldom has a pair of athletes arrived at one championship race so evenly matched.

Dibaba was the victor here in Moncton, with a 15:08.06 Championship record to lower the mark of 15:21.52 set by Meselech Melkamu in 2004, but Cherono will certainly be back.

If last summer’s World Championships in Berlin is any indication, Cherono and Dibaba may be contending for gold in 2017, if not sooner.

In the Berlin 5000m final, Meseret Defar of Ethiopia, the 2002 World Junior champion at both 5000m and 3000m and the only woman ever to win that double, was defeated by Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya. Cheruiyot was third in that 2002 Junior 5000m final, and the silver went to Dibaba’s older sister Tirunesh.

The decorated Dibaba family

Genzege, third in a line of racing sisters, is still making her own name in the shadow of elder sister Tirunesh. The Beijing Olympic 10,000m and 5000m gold medallist and World record holder at 5000m, the older Dibaba nonetheless never won a World Junior title, a record now upset by Genzege. “When I headed over here, she was fully confident I would win,” said Genzege after the race.

The Dibaba sisters’ cousin Derartu Tulu, also an Olympic gold medallist, is the only family member who has managed to win at the World Junior championships, taking the 10,000m title in 1990.

Following in the footsteps of Tirunesh, Genzege has already begun racing at the senior level, including making the 5000m final in Berlin (where she finished 8th in 15:11.12) and establishing a PB of 14:55.52 at the 2009 Bislett Games in Oslo.

Now, after a second-place performance in 2008, Genzege Dibaba can say what her Olympian sister cannot: that she was a World Junior champion.

“Two years ago, I wasn’t able to succeed, but this year, I’ve worked hard and improved and obtained the gold,” said Dibaba.

Not only do Dibaba and Cherono have a long racing history, but the tactics they each adopted recalled dozens of races run by their countrymen and women. Cherono, as the Kenyans often have and as Dennis Masai did in the 10,000m final on Tuesday evening, ran from the front, and set a brisk pace punctuated by irregular surges meant to shake off pursuers. Dibaba, by contrast, followed Cherono closely, avoided the lead, and waited for her moment to strike, at least until the final two laps where both athletes tested each other with short, quick sprints.

“I knew I could pass her with 100m left,” said Dibaba. “I have better speed than her over the last 100m, so I stayed back deliberately.”

Cherono convinced outcome might have been different

Cherono’s record would suggest that speed would be on her side. The two-time 3000m Junior champion and 2007 Youth champion at that distance, Cherono broke up the 3000m final on the first night of competition with a single fast lap in the middle of the race, then sealed her victory with another addition of pace in the closing lap.

Cherono has a faster PB at 5000m, having run 14:47.13 in the very fast race in Shanghai, the first women’s 5000m in the Samsung Diamond League.

Cherono also had won the pair’s most recent championship meeting, when she took the World Cross Country junior title in Bydgoczsz this spring. Dibaba, the 2008 and 2009 champion, finished 11th in Bydgoczsz.

Cherono, however, stepped on the inside rail of the track as the pair sprinted down the homestretch, and stumbled. She caught herself and didn’t fall, but the violent interruption broke her stride, her concentration, and ultimately her will. “It’s not how I wanted to finish,” she said. “I stumbled and it cost me the race.” She spoke sparingly to the press, fighting back tears, but insisted despite the distress on her face that she was happy with the silver medal.

The margin of victory – or, from Cherono’s point of view, defeat – was just over a second, and we may be certain Cherono will be remembering that second in many training sessions to come. It’s almost a lock that she will remember it next time she races Dibaba, a day we may not need to wait for long.