22 Jul

Dibaba Cleans Up

Genzebe Dibaba

I had a rare privilege last week when I witnessed an athletics world record. Working at a world-class sporting event like the Monaco Diamond League was already an incredible experience, but to see first-hand a world record and a distance running one at that, was a real treat. Writes Chris Broadbent.

The record books were re-written by Genzebe Dibaba in the women’s 1500m. The diminutive Ethiopian scorched round three and three-quarter laps of the iconic Stade Louis II stadium in a staggering 3:50.07.

It was a performance that left the stadium buzzing, with the 16,000 crowd savouring a truly incredible run. It was therefore a little deflating to see how the evening had been reported in the British media.

The headlines related to Mo Farah not winning – again in the 1500m and not his specialist 5000m and 10,000m distances – and another victory by proven drugs cheat Justin Gatlin (USA) in the 100m.

Why had Dibaba’s trailblazing run not received the plaudits it deserved? An element of sexism? Were Farah and Gatlin given unfair priority because they were in men’s events? Possibly. Was it to do with sheer parochialism where British stars like Farah take priority no matter what? Likely.

Or was it down to the media obsession with drugs in sport and the type of pantomime villain story that Gatlin provides? Probably an element of all three. It’s a great shame that Dibaba’s performance didn’t steal every headline. Because it deserved to.

As well as being a simply brilliant piece of running, it was also a significant performance for those who do obsess with drugs in sport.

Even for a huge fan of athletics like me, it is undeniable that the women’s world records make for uncomfortable reading. The 100m (10.49) and 200m (21.34) are owned by Florence Griffiths-Joyner, both set in 1988 when she won double Olympic gold.

She retired immediately afterwards and died prematurely 10 years later at the age of 38 of a heart seizure. Her records have not remotely been challenged since. Ditto, the 400m (47.60) and 800m (1:53.28) marks were established in the early 1980s by Marita Koch and Jarmila Kratochvilova and are way out of reach of today’s athletes.

Koch was part of the notorious East German system and her name subsequently appeared on files naming athletes on the state-sponsored drug programme. Czech Kratochvilova was an unremarkable athlete who made a huge transformation in her physical appearance at the age of 32 before taking huge chunks out of her best times.

Until Dibaba’s incredible run last week, the 1500m record was owned by Qu Yunxia of China in 3:50.46 set at the Chinese National Games in 1993.

The same competition where 3000m (8:06.11) and 10,000m (29:31.78) world records were set by team-mate Wang Junxia. Coached by the now discredited Ma Junren on an alleged diet of turtles; blood and fungus, the athletes’ swiftness on track was matched by the swiftness of their careers.

Although none of the above failed tests, there are black clouds over all these women’s world records. Which is why Dibaba’s run gave us something to really celebrate – a clean record by a clean athlete.

A fixture on the international scene for eight years, the twice World Indoor Champion has been competing at the highest level for several years making gradual improvements.

As the younger sister of multiple Olympic champion Tirunesh and Olympic silver medallist. Ejagayehu, she always had the right genetics and - this year - the pieces have come together.

It might not have made the headlines, but Dibaba’s performance was a significant moment – a women’s world record reclaimed for the sport by a real runner.