Having suffered the mind-numbing experience of watching a woman who can run 14min 11sec for 5000 metres, dawdle through a fifteen and a half minute race against women she knows she can beat, without once taking the lead until the final lap of the Olympic race, took me back 16 years. To the World Cup in Havana in 1992.
Having won the Olympic 10,000 metres title for the first time a month earlier with exactly the same tactics as Tirunesh, ie sit on the front-runner’s shoulder like a baleful parrot, then peck the leader’s ear off, ie, outkick, in this case, Elana Meyer of South Africa in the last lap, Derartu pulled the same parasitical number in Havana.
In a downpour, which had already dampened the proceedings, Derartu followed the Kenyan no 77 (or someone similar), through 24 laps in around 32min 30sec, before sauntering away to win in close to 34mins. It took the ringing of the bell, signalling the last lap to wake the stadium up from its torpor.
What is it with these Ethiopian women? Why do they seem pathologically incapable of leading a race ‘til the final lap. Did they take the example of Miruts (Yifter) in the Moscow Olympics to heart, when he won the 5000/10,000 double with similar tactics? At least in those races, there was an honest pace.
It’s a good job, the Ethiopian men don’t run the same way, at least not always. In Haile’s defence, Paul Tergat probably wouldn’t have let him past in two successive Olympic 10,000 metres finals (1996/2000), until the last lap anyway. But in contrast, the way Kenenisa killed off the challenge of his pursuers in the men’s 5000 metres in Beijing (a four-minute mile from 2000 metres, followed by a 53+sec last lap) was a joy to watch. And I hope Tirunesh was watching.
I was so incensed by her lack of courage and initiative and self-respect that, at her post-5k press conference, I asked why a woman of her capabilities always refused to lead until the last lap. At least that provoked a rapid response, as she administered a fine put-down. A woman whose press conferences are normally as boring as her races, replied, “Now you’ve pointed it out to me, I’ll lead in future”. Taking the p-s, or what? Even I had to laugh, albeit ruefully.
Now, it’s hard enough getting long distance races in most track programmes outside of championships. And there’s nothing more the TV dudes would like than to get rid of them. Then again, they don’t show them anyway. Well, NBC doesn’t. At least BBC feels obliged. But if everyone ran like Tirunesh and her peers, even the IAAF would have a hard time justifying their continuation. These women are doing a disservice to everyone with tedious tactics like this. But most of all, they are doing a disservice to themselves.
Following her own Olympic ‘double’ in Beijing, and successive world titles, the question being widely floated afterwards was, ‘is Tirunesh the best women distance runner of all-time?’.
Not in a million years! Or even the 112 of modern Olympic history.
She’s only won one Olympic title (so far), but give me the likes of Pamela Jelimo anytime.