Meseret Defar: Reigning supreme at 5,000m
Since 2004, Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar has achieved great things over 3,000m (indoor) and 5,000m, and is the only female athlete to win two Olympic gold medals in the latter event.
“I’d dreamt about running at the highest level since I was a little girl,” recounts Ethiopian long-distance specialist Meseret Defar. “I’d run through the woods, telling myself that maybe one day I’d perform in huge stadiums and win major medals. It was something I thought about constantly.” Over the past decade she has undoubtedly realised those dreams, going on to seal her place as one of the most successful female athletes in history. Much like her compatriots, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, Defar is now a huge star in her homeland, inspiring new generations of young Ethiopian runners. “In our country, if you end up with a silver medal instead of a gold, it’s just not good enough, she explains. “We run to win – to win at the Olympic Games or the World Championships.”
Successful Olympic debut
Crowned world junior champion at 3,000m and 5,000m in 2002 in Kingston (JAM), where her fierce rivalry with Dibaba began to take shape, and world indoor 3,000m champion in 2004 in Budapest (HUN), Defar was initially named as an alternate for the 5,000m at Athens 2004, before being called up as a last-gasp replacement. In the qualifying round, she justified her selection by clocking the best time overall. In the final on 23 August the 20-year-old produced a stunning last lap, accelerating away from her rivals to triumph in 14:52.39, more than two seconds ahead of her former compatriot, Elvan Abeylegesse, who was now competing for Turkey. Joanne Pavey (GBR) took bronze in 14:55.45.
Bronze in Beijing
Defar continued to impress at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, winning the 3,000m in 2006, in Moscow (RUS), and in 2008, in Valencia (ESP). In between, she landed her first IAAF World Championship title, the 5,000m in Osaka (JPN). That success, as well as a new 5,000m world record of 14:16.63, set on 15 June 2007 in Oslo (NOR), which improved her previous record by eight seconds, led to the Ethiopian winning the female IAAF Athlete of the Year award for 2007. Going into the 2008 Games in Beijing, she was strongly fancied to defend her Olympic title, but Dibaba outmanoeuvred her on the day, claiming a remarkable 5,000m and 10,000m double. Defar eventually finished third behind Abeylegesse.
Return to the top in London
The Ethiopian remained imperious in her preferred indoor event, earning her fourth 3,000m title in Doha (QAT) in March 2010. At the outdoor Worlds in 2009 and 2011, held in Berlin (GER) and Daegu (KOR), she was forced to settle for bronze in the 5,000m, both times trailing behind the Kenyan pair Viviane Cheruiyot and Sylvia Jebiwott Kibet. On 11 August 2012 in London, the Addis Ababa-born runner went into the concluding lap of the 5,000m final slightly ahead of the Kenyan duo, but neck-and-neck with familiar foe Dibaba, who she eased ahead of with 80m to go, securing a historic second Olympic gold medal in 15:04.25. Cheruiyot, meanwhile, overtook the slowing Dibaba near the line to finish in the silver medal position.
Magnificent in Moscow
In August 2013, Defar followed up her Olympic exploits with a second world crown in the 5,000m in Moscow. “The first few kilometres were a bit slow, but the race got really intense in the last five laps. My body was responding well; I felt good. In the final 200m, I kicked for home and held on to win!” she recalled with great pride.