The sporty landscape
Training at the high altitude of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia gives the Dibaba family a natural advantage. It’s 2,300m above sea level up here, reducing oxygen intake and building endurance - but sibling rivalry spurs them on, too. There are seven Dibaba runners in total, although it is Tirunesh and Genzebe who currently dominate long-distance events. From a quick 1,500m to the 42km of a full marathon, a Dibaba will usually lead the pack. Tirunesh, 32, and the holder of three Olympic gold medals, is now winning road marathons. Younger sister Genzebe, 27, is claiming world records on the track. No wonder they’re celebrities at home in Ethiopia, chased for photographs wherever they go - even while out for a leisurely 30km jog on the gentle slopes of Mount Entoto.
Interview by Ed Caesar, photography by Kuba Ryniewicz
ED CAESAR: I’ve watched you run so many times but I realise I know very little about your background. What did your parents do for work?
TIRUNESH DIBABA: I grew up in Bekoji, in southern Ethiopia. It’s a rural area, a long drive from Addis Ababa. My father was a farmer, like most people there, and my mother took care of the household. We were seven children, six girls and one boy.
EC: Both your older sister Ejegayehu and a younger sister Genzebe are also fantastic runners. What about the rest of your siblings?
TD: Actually, the boy isn’t very good. [Laughs] There are two more girls who are still young, who are very good. I think they will be great in the future.
EC: What do you think happened to this poor boy?
TD: He was maybe quite spoiled: there was no pressure on him to perform and he gets everything he wants anyway. But now he lives in Addis and helps me with training. He has really assisted me in becoming successful.
EC: What was your life like when you were a child?
TD: The only time we didn’t have to do household chores was when we were in school. We didn’t get to focus on education unless we were at school, because we were always helping my mother and my father. It was very hard work.
TD: Yes! We used to have to bring water from 3km away, maybe twice a day. We’d have to help with the cattle. We’d help with the coffee ceremony, which could take an hour to prepare. You had to be strong, even as a child.
EC: Do you find time to return to Bekoji often?
TD: I don’t go a lot, because I normally have training or competitions coming up and it’s easier to stay in the city. But I do have very good memories of my childhood in Bekoji. Every time I go back, I’m happy.
EC: How would you describe your family’s social status in the area? Were you rich or poor or somewhere in between?
TD: I’d say we were better off than most people in the area. My father was a very hard-working person, and so was my mother. They had lots of cattle.
EC: Was it a real shock for you when you came to live in Addis?
TD: Oh, yes. Bekoji is very green, very hilly, lots of fields. When you come to Addis, you see a lot of things. It’s a city. The noise and everything is so different. I was just a teenager; I used to hold someone’s hand when I crossed the road.
EC: When did you realise that you had a talent for running?
TD: My older sister encouraged me to start training three times a week when I was 13 years old. Even when I had just started, my coach used to tell me I was going to be big, but I never thought I was going to become a famous runner. I just thought, I’m good at this.
EC: Is racing enjoyable? Or is it just work for you?
TD: Yes, it’s enjoyable! Naturally, I love running. I’ve figured out that I’m a true runner. I naturally have speed and endurance. I don’t think I do as much training as other people. It also feels great to win. I never have any other feeling towards running than that I love it.
EC: Has that enjoyment continued throughout your career, even as it has become more serious?
TD: It’s not quite like before. I’m professional, and I’m running against a lot of other good athletes. Also, as you get older, you have to put a lot more effort into training. So, there is more stress, but the joy of running remains the same.
EC: Some races - like the marathon - must be gruelling though?
TD: The marathon is a tough event, so it’s a slightly different type of enjoyment. But, yes, for instance in Chicago [where she won the marathon in great style in October with a fast time of 2:18:31], I knew exactly how well I’d trained and I knew exactly what pace I could run. You think to yourself, “If there is a better racer out there, let them come and challenge me.” Nobody did. The satisfaction was that I knew inside how hard I’d worked for that moment.
EC: Can you imagine what your life would have been like had you not become a runner?
TD: You never know, do you? All that I can say is, some of my friends here have jobs with the government, some of them left the country and some of them became farmers. Sometimes, when I see my friends who still live in Bekoji and who have four or five kids, I think: “This could have been me.”
EC: Has your attitude or approach to running changed since you became a mother?
TD: Before Nathan was born in 2015, I was a hundred per cent for running, because I loved it and enjoyed it. Once the baby came, it was a different thing: 50 per cent for running, 50 per cent for the baby, maybe. He’s given me so much joy. I am blessed that he is a content boy who I can leave with anyone, and he is lucky that he has a good family who take care of him.
EC: It looks like you might be an even better runner now you’ve become a mother.
TD: Before I had Nathan, people used to tell me that women often get stronger after having kids, and I thought they were saying it just to make me feel better! [Laughs] Now I’ve found that actually it’s true for me. I feel good. Despite the fact that the marathon is a tough race, and despite the fact I’m not giving a hundred per cent in training, I’m getting really good results.
EC: What counts as “not giving a hundred per cent”? How far do you run each week when you are in full training for the marathon?
TD: I run about 200km. I train every day, twice a day, except Sundays. It’s a challenge to run at high altitude - it’s about 2,300m above sea level. It has definitely made us strong athletes. When I go to low altitudes it feels easier to run, for sure.
EC: Can you describe what it felt like to leave Ethiopia for the first time for a competition?
TD: My shock of moving to Addis was not long before taking my first trip to Europe for the cross-country championships in Ostend. I was 15. The race was muddy and cold, but I liked it. The whole trip was really eye-opening for me...
EC: Did that experience give you more motivation to train hard?
TD: Around that time there were not a lot of chances to work with professional managers who would take you abroad to competitions, like there are now. The only chance I could see to get out of Ethiopia was to run for the Ethiopian national team. And you had to be the best to run for Ethiopia. So, yes, I decided to train very hard; otherwise I might not have gotten another opportunity to travel.
EC: How did it feel to become a world champion at the age of 18, when you won the Paris World Championships?
TD: That was very memorable, and made a big impression on me for several reasons. There were many good runners who were expected to win that race, and nobody expected me to even be in the medals. Even I didn’t expect it. But I won. When I came back, the whole of Ethiopia was in love with me. They nicknamed me “The Little Girl”.
EC: What was your reaction to all that attention?
TD: I found it very, very frightening. I was living with my sister in a rented house in Addis. We didn’t have a car, so we were travelling by bus. And suddenly I couldn’t even go to the market to buy things because lots of people were all over me the whole time. People would call out my name. It was a shock, and I didn’t know how to get over it. I became very shy.
EC: Did you hide?
TD: Yes, life was stressful. Unless I was at training, I stayed at home.
EC: You still can’t walk five metres here without someone asking you for a picture.
TD: I’m used to it now. I can stop for pictures or autographs, or whatever, and I don’t mind at all.
EC: Your wedding was televised nationally and watched live by hundreds of thousands of people in Addis. Wouldn’t you have preferred a more private ceremony?
TD: No - I loved it. It’s in our culture to make weddings big public celebrations. I was celebrating with my friends! I wanted my wedding exactly as it was.
EC: But is it sometimes a relief when you go abroad and very few people recognise you?
TD: Yes. Except for some Ethiopians, or some people who are into athletics, nobody notices me, and it’s really nice.
EC: When you are in a foreign city, do you ever have any time to yourself, to just enjoy it?
TD: Most of the time, the schedule is too busy to do much, although when I went to Chicago in October, I had all my family with me: my sister, my husband, my kid. And after the marathon we stayed in Washington DC for two weeks and we had a good time. I’m now finding more time for that kind of thing.
EC: Are you usually competitive with your sisters who run professionally? What’s the relationship like between all of you?
TD: We are very close. Genzebe started many years after me, and Ejegayehu knows I run better than her. Honestly, whoever wins we are all happy for each other.
EC: You didn’t feel a pinch of irritation when your little sister beat you for the first time?
TD: [Laughs] No! I don’t feel anything like that. Genzebe is like my daughter. When she wins, it means so much to me. Sometimes, Genzebe worries about competing in the same race as me, or in an event in which I hold a record. She might think that she’s going to disappoint me, but I don’t care if she beats me or breaks my record. It’s like your daughter doing better than you do. That’s the feeling. It’s happiness.
EC: Would you say you see yourself as a positive role model for women and girls in Ethiopia?
TD: As you know, the big pioneer - not just for Ethiopians, but in Africa in general - was my cousin, Derartu Tulu. She was the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She opened the door for Ethiopian women runners, especially from the countryside. She had pressure from her family who said that women should stay in the home, but she overcame that. So, I had it easier than she did. Still, I think we are good role models, because women in Ethiopia are still expected to stay in the home.
EC: Is it good or bad for your marriage that you sometimes train with your husband, who is an Olympic silver medallist himself?
TD: [Laughs] Actually, he’s been very helpful in so many ways. It’s a definitely a plus that we train together. It’s good to have company!
EC: Do you think you can break Paula Radcliffe’s seemingly impregnable 2003 world record of 2:15:25 for the marathon?
TD: It’s very difficult. There are so many factors: you have to be in the best condition, the weather has to be good, the pacemakers have to be good. It’s not easy. Also, not all of those factors are in my control. You have to be lucky.
EC: When will you stop running?
TD: I’ll carry on as long as I keep running well. My goal is to win Olympic marathon gold in Tokyo in 2020.
EC: In Amharic, Tirunesh means “you are good”, and Genzebe means “my money”. Why did your mother and father call you these names?
TD: When Genzebe was born, they had been expecting a boy. When she arrived, my mother and father thought, “She is still our precious thing, our treasure.” So that’s why she’s called Genzebe. With me, my mother had a very good friend whom she loved who was called Tirunesh. That’s who I’m named after. My mother’s friend is not alive anymore. But I have the name, and it makes me happy.