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Friday, August 15, 2008

Beijng 2008: 10,000 m women

Tirunesh Dibaba wins the first track gold of the 2008 Games

Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia today joined the ranks of Ethiopian Olympic champions over 10,000m when she won the event at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium this evening. Dibaba, the multiple world champion over 10,000m and over the country, was missing an Olympic Gold medal. She corrected that tonight, when she beat off a strong challenge by Turkey's Elvan Abeyelgesse (born in Ethiopia, mind you) over the final 6,000m of what was otherwise quite a routine 10,000m race, in terms of tactics and strategy, that is - the performances were superb.

The Olympic record fell in the process - the winning time of 29:54.66 breaking the old record of Deratu Tulu by a full 23 seconds. It was the second fastest time in history (and third, for the silver medallist), and is the first time anyone other than Wang Junxia has broken the 30 minute barrier. Third place went to Shalane Flanagan of the United States, as she continued a resurgence in distance running in the United States to follow on from her compatriot Kara Goucher's bronze in last year's Osaka World Champs. She broke the US record to claim bronze, finishing in 30:22.22.

The result (Eth - Tur - USA) was the same as the Osaka race, with the direct swop of Flanagan for Goucher. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the day, however, was the complete absence of Ethiopia's other two distance stars from the mix - Mestawet Tufa failed to finish, while Tirunesh Dibaba's sister Ejegeyehu finished 14th. Both had been up in the front four up until about 6km, and then shot off the back and disappeared altogether.

Other than that, it was business as usual for Dibaba, though she was certainly made to work hard by a very game Abeylegesse.

How it unfolded - a settled, stable race

The table below shows the race developed, with split times and kilometer times recorded.

The early pace was set entirely by Lornah Kiplagat of Holland. The race actually took on the feel of a "paced" record attempt, because within the first 600m, the race order was established - Kiplagat at the front, then the two lesser known Ethiopians behind her, followed by the Kenyans and Abeylegesse, with Dibaba tucked away in sixth position. And it remained that way for lap after lap.

I guess that Kiplagat, with her marathon, cross-country and half-marathon credentials was only ever going to race it this way, but her efforts - a solid 72 seconds per lap for about the first 15 laps - served only to set the race up for the faster athletes behind her. She of course had little alternative, but the steady pace did little to a group of about 18 athletes who formed behind her by the 3000m mark. Dibaba in particular must have enjoyed the relatively "stable" pattern that was established - she broke the world record over 5000m this year, running the final 1500m in just over 4 minutes, and so this steady pace was right up her alley, and barring a spectacular finish from someone, she would have enjoyed Kiplagat's efforts.

Gradually, the pace began to wear the field down, and one by one they fell off, so that with about 4,000m to go, it was down to a tenuous group of around eight athletes. Flanagan was there - one of only two non-Africans to survive that long.

Attacks by Abeylegesse - desperate, brave attempt to burn off Dibaba

And then Abeylegesse took the race and shook it up a little. She went to the front with 9 laps to go, and tried to force the pace. Somewhat bizarrely, Kiplagat responded, went to the front and slowed it right down again, into the low 73-second range. One lap later, Abeylegesse finally decided to go for it, and she went to the front with a 69-second lap that blew the race wide open.

Dibaba's Ethiopian team-mates were long gone, dropped off by the steady pace, which was a big surprise. But Abeylegesse's surge dropped everyone else...except Dibaba. The pace over the next 4 laps was searing - Abeylegesse was relentless at the front, reeling off four consecutive sub-70 second laps. She must have known what was waiting for her at the bell, when Dibaba's speed over 400m would be unleashed. She'd been beaten in the World Championship final last year in exactly that manner, and so her big effort came from about 7km onwards.

She ran the 8th and 9th kilometers in 2:55 and 2:56 respectively, and that really did force Dibaba to work to stay on her. Everyone else was dropped - the Kenyans Linet Masai and Lucy Wangui were dropped, as was Flanagan.

It seemed that Abeylegesse was doing her very best to mix the pace, and every time she caught up to lapped runners, the pace was pushed, and Dibaba was forced to respond. Despite her best efforts, however, Dibaba was able to remain in touch. As the race progressed, you could almost sense the "desperation" in Abeylegesse as she tried to break the speed of Dibaba behind her. It was not to be, and the bell approached with Dibaba very much in contention.

According to "script", the bell signalled for Dibaba to move onto Abeylegesse's shoulder and she moved passed her. To her credit, Abeylegesse fought hard, and for a brief moment (very brief, admittedly), it seemed that Dibaba might even be challenged over the final 300m of a race.

However, she just built her lead gradually, and moved into the home straight with a comfortable 10m lead. She never looked troubled, and showed the world her usual graceful style - there can be few more elegant runners in the world at high speeds. The final 400m was covered in a shade over 60 seconds, for a final kilometer of 2:48.66.

Thanks to Kiplagat's earlier steady 3:00/km efforts, and Abeylegesse's work between 7 and 9.6 km, Dibaba was able to crack the magical 30-min barrier, and claim the Olympic record.

Flanagan - a US record in third and a model for pacing

Our US-based readers will have been delighted with the presence of their best distance runner Shalane Flanagan in third place. As mentioned, Flanagan was actually comprehensivly dropped off when the pace was first ramped up by Abeylegesse at the 6km mark. The Kenyans tried gamely to respond to the pace of the leading two women, whereas Flanagan allowed the race to progress up front and maintained more or less the same pace. She conceded a lead that must have been over 50m at one stage. However, as the Kenyan challenge faded (also a surprise of sorts), she was able to pick up the Kenyans, and her delight in claiming bronze was almost as great, if not greater, than that of Dibaba.

She did of course enter the race as the fastest in the world this year with her 30:34 performance, but few would have fancied her to challenge the leading Ethiopians. In the end, only one of them, plus Abeylegesse, were able to beat her, and she managed to break her own US record by 12 seconds in claiming third - it was a testament to knowing your limits, running your own race and capitalizing on the opportunities provided by the situation.

Dibaba - the greatest?

So Tirunesh Dibaba adds Olympic gold to a collection that is already staggering. It seems bizarre to suggest that she is "under-rated", but many don't realise that at the age of only 23, she is already a FOUR-TIME world cross country champion, a FOUR-TIME track champion over either 5000m or 10,000m (including a double in 2005), and now an Olympic Champion. Add that to her World Record over 5000m, and you have the achievement list of surely one of the great female runners ever?

She'll certainly be hoping to entrench that perception even further in a week's time, when she is due to run in the 5,000m race. If she does line up (there's a risk she'll cash her chips and call it a day for 2008), she'll take on her country-woman Meseret Defar in what is surely going to be one of the great races of the Games, perhaps of all time.

For now, the Athletics of the 2008 Games are underway! Bring on the rest!



Cem said...

Thanks for the detailed commentary and analysis. I'm a Turk living in Turkey and our country doesn't care about athletics at all(mayve except some clubs, like the one Elvan chose to run for and than settled in Turkey). I cannot say that I'm a sports guy, but watching that race and reading about it here was surely fun. Keep up the good work.