By Haileegziabher Adhanom
Addis Ababa – Ethiopia dubbed “the land of Runners”, is home to some of world’s legendary long-distance athletes. Ethiopia’s dominance traces back to Abebe Bikila’s famous barefoot marathon victory at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games.
Since then, years and names may have been changed, but Ethiopia’s dominance in long distance athletics has never ceased. The baton of victory in the world athletics arena continues to be handed down through the generations.
Since Bikila, there has been Mamo Wolde, Mirutse Yifter, Haile Gebresilassie, Fatuma Roba, Meseret Defar, Kenenisa Bekele and many more that have kept the legacy of Ethiopian athletics victory at the Olympics, World Championships and World Major Athletics events through the years.
But there’s one particular family, the Dibaba’s, that has a very special place in Ethiopian and world athletics. They have broken records and won race after race, bringing glory to the East African nation.
The world of sport has had so many successful siblings from the William sisters, the Neville brothers, the Toure brothers, Bekele brothers and many others, but the Dibaba’s are different. First it was, their aunt, Derartu Tulu, the first black African female to win an Olympic gold in 10,000m at Barcelona 1992 Olympics that paved the way.
So far, three Dibaba’s have won medals at the Olympic Games. Ejigayehu Dibaba, now 38, won the family’s first medal at the Olympics. At Athens 2004, the oldest of the Dibaba sisters won a silver medal in 10,000m, behind the two-time Olympic champion, her aunt and idol Tulu.
Then, comes the most decorated athlete in the family, probably in the history of long-distance athletics, Tirunesh Dibaba (35). Also known as “the Baby Faced Destroyer”, Tirunesh has so far won three Olympic gold medals, in the 5 000m and 10 000m and added three bronze medals over the same distances. She has additionally clinched eleven gold and four silver medals at World Athletics Championships, World Cross Country and African Championships, and overall has a staggering 21 medals for her country. She was also voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the Decade by Athletics Weekly in December 2020.
The current world record holder for the 1500m (outdoor) and former record holder in the 1500m (indoor), who is also world champion in the same distances and the indoor mile, Genzebe Dibaba is the second most successful of the siblings. The Rio 2016 silver medallist holds the distinction of possessing the most world records by one individual in track history, with a total of six (formerly seven) and one world best time in the 2000m indoor women’s (5:23.75).
It seems the Dibaba’s dominance in the long distance athletics will stand for some time, since the youngest of the family Anna and Melat Dibaba are currently pushing to keep the flame of the family’s dominance in the world of athletics alive. In Dec 2020, Anna Dibaba, 24, finished second behind Genzebe, at a 5km road race in Barcelona, Spain.
As if that’s not enough in the blood line, the family still boasts another Olympic medallist in the family, Sileshi Sihin. The two time Olympic silver medallist in 5000m and 10 000m from Beijing 2008, is married to Tirunesh. They have known each other since they were teenagers, trained together and represented Ethiopia in several international meets before they finally got married.
“If you compared them to a car, they would be a Ford Focus with a Ferrari engine.” “World records, Olympic medals, world championships—the Dibabas’ accomplishments are unprecedented in this sport,” says Ato Boldon, a former celebrated athlete himself.
All of the Dibabas were born, raised and started running in Bekoji, a small town in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. It’s 200km towards the southwest of Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. They had a normal childhood and although they had a chance to go to school, they still helped their parents around their home.
Like many Ethiopian girls they would fetch water, collect firewood and look after the family’s cattle. It’s widely believed that these domestic chores help most Ethiopian athletes in terms of resilience and toughens them in their pursuit of excellence..
Their aunt, Derartu Tulu, the gold medallist at the Olympics at Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000 in 10 000m, is their biggest role model. Though every Dibaba’s had their own idol growing up, it’s normal for them to want to follow in the footsteps of their closest relatives.
Ejigayehu and Tirunesh looked up to their aunt, Genzebe was inspired by Tirunesh and Genzebe now inspires Anna. If this trend keeps going on, then we might witness Anna becoming an inspiration for Melat and others.
Running is not just a sport for the Dibabas. It’s a habit, a lifestyle, a form of entertainment, a means to get together: literally everything. Not a single day passes without training. Be it jogging down a track, treadmill, gym or hiking at the Entoto mountain in the outskirts of northern Addis Ababa.
The Dibabas train together as they clock up to 30km every day. They run around the Entoto forest weekly, and every Saturday at the Addis Ababa national stadium track and the guidance of their legendary Ethiopian track coach Hussein Shibo (“Commander”).
The siblings are proud to have a very strong bond as a family. Even though they live separately, they remain very close. Ejigayehu and Tirunesh are married and have their own families, besides their intense training and competition schedules.
The younger siblings work hard in training keen to reach the level of their older siblings.
They spend holidays and their happy moments together. They share experiences, encourage each other and are always there for each other when celebrating career and life milestones.
Their favourite destinations
Being a Dibaba is hard work but it’s even tougher to retain their celebrated status. It’s so hard that even taking time off for holidays remains on their wish lists for now.
Of the many countries they have visited for competitions, racing in Europe remains their favourite race destination.
One thing that has kept the Dibaba family successful is their drive and hunger to be the best. Even Tirunesh, the most accomplished athlete for many, still feels that there is still some glory left for her to chase.
Tirunesh Dibaba is now working to get back to shape, after giving birth to her second child just a few months ago. Her main targets are to be available for team Ethiopia at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in the marathon and chase some world major marathon titles when racing properly resumes. The prime goal for the multiple Olympic champion is to smash the women’s marathon world record of 02:14:04 currently held by Kenyan Brigid Kosgei before she can consider retirement. Considering Tirunesh’s enormous energy and her personal best of 02:17:56, which is also the eighth best all-time, the target is a realistic one for her.
Genzebe’s hunger for more success is no less than that of her older sister. Like every other athlete she wants to be more successful at the Olympics.
Genzebe’s main focus for Tokyo is an Olympic title. She is a complete athlete on her own and has achieved so many results, some of them are not even matched by the great Tirunesh herself and that ambition is what drives the world 1500m champion forward.
Can Anna and Melat emulate the success of their elders?
Growing up in a family of superstars comes with both privileges and sometimes pressures. If we take the Dibaba families, we can say that we are only seeing the privileges. We are seeing success being passed down through siblings. The question is: can the upcoming talent Anna and Melat, both long distance runners, emulate the success of their elders?
Their brother in law, Sileshi Sihin, a retired long distance athlete and someone very close to them knows best. “I have seen them growing up and I can tell that they are on the right trajectory to emulate their sisters.” Sileshi said.
He warns though that being surrounded by success and talented sisters doesn’t guarantee you any success in athletics. And it will require ‘unlimited commitment, persistence and strong character that’s not easily broken or satisfied by a win’.
According to him, if Anna and Melat bear this in mind the legacy of the Dibaba Family in athletics will be in steady hands.