LONDON — The fierce Kenyan-Ethiopian rivalry renewed itself Friday, and the result in the women’s Olympic 10,000 meters was as reliably predictable as it was four years ago: Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba again drew away with a punishing kick to win the gold medal and perhaps establish herself as history’s greatest female distance runner.
Jacob Araptany of Uganda leading a heat of the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase during the first day of track and field at the Olympic Stadium.
On a cool night, Dibaba ran the year’s fastest time to win in 30 minutes 20.75 seconds. Sally Kipyego of Kenya (30:26.37) and Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya (30:30.44) ran their personal bests to take silver and bronze. They were the first Kenyan women to win Olympic medals in the 6.2-mile race. Still, they could not match the finishing speed of Dibaba, who won her third career gold medal, the most by any female distance runner.
On Friday, Dibaba moved to the front with about one and a quarter laps remaining in the 25-lap race, alert to Cheruiyot’s powerful kick, and ran the final lap in a searing 62.08 seconds, making the outcome inevitable.
Having regained her fitness after being injured much of the last two years, Dibaba, 27, will next attempt to win the 5,000 meters and repeat the double gold medals she won at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“I have never been happier,” Dibaba said. “I was not even that happy in Beijing. No one has ever done what I did today.”
Friday’s win did not match the Olympic record of 29.54.66 that Dibaba set in Beijing, but the victory became a stirring validation of her return to racing in the world’s biggest events.
She has experienced repeated problems with shin splints and missed the world track and field championships in 2009 and 2011. According to her agent, Dibaba did not run a single race between August 2010 and New Year’s Eve 2011.
“It was overuse,” said Mark Wetmore, Dibaba’s American agent. “She got frustrated. Every time she tried to come back she rushed a little bit.”
In Dibaba’s absence at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, Cheruiyot won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and established herself as an Olympic favorite in London.
But Dibaba also made her Olympic intentions known June 1 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., winning the 10-kilometer event in 30:24.39, then the year’s fastest time. It was only the second time she had run the event since Beijing. Eight days later, Dibaba won a 5,000-meter race in New York in 14:50.80, covering the final 1,500 meters in 4:05, displaying her evident fitness.
A problem with side stitches for Dibaba has surfaced on occasion, though. And the Kenyans seemed to test her Friday. But Dibaba, wearing a ponytail and heart-shaped earrings, remained patient and confident through the first half of the race. She covered a 68.91-second surge on the 18th lap and positioned herself to take charge with just over two laps remaining.
“I think the Kenyans tried to pressure her because of the side stitches,” Wetmore said. “But she was clearly fine.”
Repeating as Olympic champion in the 10K, Dibaba joined her cousin Derartu Tulu as the only women to win the race twice. With her victory at the 1992 Barcelona Games, Tulu became the first black African woman to win a gold medal. She won again at the 2000 Sydney Games. And now Dibaba has since been reluctant to let the gold medal leave the family. Her sister Ejegayehu won silver in the 10K the 2004 Athens Olympics.
The Dibabas and Tulu come from the village of Bekoji, more than 9,000 feet above sea level in Ethiopia’s southern highlands. As girls, the Dibabas lived in a family of subsistence farmers. Their conical mud hut had no electricity, so they went to a local hotel to watch Tulu win her gold medal in Barcelona.
Inspired, Tirunesh and Ejegayehu became Olympic medalists themselves. And now Tirunesh is a three-time Olympic champion, matching countryman Kenenisa Bekele. That is one more gold medal than Tulu — one more even than the great Abebe Bikila, who won the marathon in 1960 and 1964, and Haile Gebrselassie, who won the men’s 10,000 in 1996 and 2000 and is considered by many the greatest distance runner ever.
“The Olympics mean so much to Ethiopia,” Wetmore said. “It has put her in rarefied air.”
In 2009, Dibaba married Sileshi Sihine, a two-time Olympic silver medalist for Ethiopia in the men’s 10,000. So the family medal count may continue to grow for another generation.
More immediately, Dibaba will decide after London about moving up to the marathon. Not everyone makes the jump from 6.2 miles to 26.2 miles smoothly. But if anyone can challenge Paula Radcliffe’s world record of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds, many believe it is Dibaba.
“There is a general understanding that she will start to move that way,” Wetmore said. “But she’s focused on this moment. We haven’t had long conversations about it.”