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Is Tirunesh Dibaba The Greatest Ever?

Toni Reavis argues that we shouldn't ignore Grete Waitz.

Toni Reavis argues that we shouldn’t ignore Grete Waitz.

From: NYRR Media

If winning her second consecutive Olympic title at 10,000 meters last week has not already made Tirunesh Dibaba the greatest female distance runner in history, will successfully defending her 5000-meter gold medal on Friday settle the debate?

Since women began running 10,000 meters in the Olympics in 1988 and 5000 meters in 1992, no woman had defended her Olympic title at either distance until Dibaba crushed the field on the last lap earlier in these Games. The medal was the fourth at those distances (including a bronze at 5000 meters in 2004) in her career, already surpassing the three earned by her Ethiopian compatriots Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami; a fifth of any color in the 5000 would move her past even the great Kenenisa Bekele’s four.

In addition to her four Olympic medals thus far, consider Dibaba’s resume:

  • 4-time IAAF World Champion (10,000m 2005 and 2007, 5000m 2003 and 2005)
  • 4-time IAAF World Cross Country Champion
  • World record-holder, 5000m and 15K
  • Former world record-holder, 3000m indoors
  • Undefeated in her nine career 10,000m races

This, despite missing the World Championships in 2009 and losing the entire 2010 season to severe shin splints.

“For me to see and watch others racing and not be able to race was awful,” Dibaba said this week through a translator. “Those were difficult times, and it crossed my mind that my career might be over.”

Instead, Dibaba came back with a vengeance, winning all six of her races so far in 2012, a streak she kept alive in the Olympic 10,000 despite being ill with what she called “a constant headache” in the week before the race. She called it the biggest victory of her career, but added that winning the 5000 would be even bigger.

“Even if it meant not running the Olympics again, that would be history and would suffice,” she said.

At just 27 years old, Dibaba is likely far from finished, planning to include the marathon in her repertoire beginning in 2013.

And that’s where the “greatest-of-all-time” debate gets interesting. The first instinct is to measure Dibaba against her legendary cousin, Tulu, whose career spanned almost 20 years and included three Olympic medals at 10,000 meters, plus a fourth-place finish; four World Cross Country titles; and wins in both the London Marathon and ING New York City Marathon.

But at least one long-time observer cites a stronger candidate: the late Grete Waitz.

Waitz was best known as a nine-time winner of the New York City Marathon, but she also earned five World Cross Country titles, the 1983 World Championships Marathon crown, and the 1984 Olympic Marathon silver medal, in addition to owning the 3000-meter world record, with a range of 4:00.55 at 1500 meters—at which she was a 1972 Olympian— to 2:24:54 in the marathon. Those times remain competitive today, good enough to win a 1500-meter silver medal in the 2008 Olympics, and gold in the marathon.

“We can only guess her medal total if Grete had been able to race at 5000 and 10,000, probably her best distance, at the Olympics,” wrote Toni Reavis in an e-mail. “Grete’s generation never had the Olympic opportunities that Tiru’s generation had.”

“So for now it’s still Grete for me, with Tiru building a powerful resume that may one day tip the scales in her favor,” wrote Reavis. “Tirunesh is well on her way, but not yet. Her legacy is still to be written.”

The next chapter is not far off. “I am so excited to run the marathon,” said Dibaba. “I believe I will do well in that field, too.”