Our countdown of the greatest Olympic athletes for each event group continues with the women’s distance events
Although it may be difficult to imagine now, there was a time when Ethiopia did not dominate the distance-running world. But long before the likes of Tirunesh Dibaba came along, her cousin Derartu Tulu had established herself as one of the greatest runners of all-time.
Tulu was just 20 years old when she made her Olympic debut in 1992, but despite being the youngest in the 10,000m final, she showed no fear. Liz McColgan had won the World Championships one year prior and tried using similar tactics in Barcelona, but she was unable to break away.
Instead it was Tulu and Elana Meyer of South Africa who built up a lead over the rest of the field. At the bell, Tulu kicked for home and for the first time the athletics world caught a glimpse of her devastating finish – a sight that would soon become familiar in the years that followed.
She stopped the clock in 31:06.02, winning by almost six seconds from Meyer. South Africa had been banned from the Olympics since 1964, because of the treatment of black people in that nation, and Meyer’s silver medal was the first for her nation since 1960. But at the finish line, Tulu waited for Meyer to trail in behind her and they then ran together, hand-in-hand, on a victory lap.
Tulu sat out the 1993 and 1994 seasons due to a knee injury, and returned in time for the 1995 World Cross – but only just, having been stuck in Athens airport for 24 hours, arriving at the venue just an hour before the start. She was unfazed and won gold – her first of three titles at the event.
An untimely injury affected Tulu at the 1996 Atlanta Games and to make matters worse she was up against world and European champion Fernanda Ribeiro and world record-holder Wang Junxia. Tulu was in contention for most of the race, but was unable to keep up with the leaders over the final lap and wound up fourth.
The 1997 season started well for Tulu, winning her second World Cross title, but was again affected by injury during the summer. She went on to sit out the 1998 and 1999 seasons due to pregnancy.
But she returned with a bang in 2000, winning her third World Cross title. Later that year she went to the Sydney Games on a quest to regain the Olympic title she had won eight years prior. She was up against the defending champion, Ribeiro, as well as the top three finishers from the World Championships one year prior – team-mate Gete Wami, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe and Tegla Loroupe of Kenya.
Tulu, now 28, had been off the radar for the two previous seasons, but she soon made her presence felt. The lead changed frequently over the final five laps, but at the bell Tulu took off and with a 60.3-second last lap she went on to win by five seconds in 30:17.49 – the fourth-fastest performance in history at that time. She became the first woman in history to win two Olympic 10,000m titles.
The 2001 season was just as successful – an Ethiopian half-marathon record (67:03), a victory at the London Marathon, and her first world title on the track, winning the 10,000m in Edmonton in similar fashion to her Sydney gold.
From then on, Tulu gravitated towards road running. She still made a few appearances on the track, but in a week where her cousin Tirunesh Dibaba made a breakthrough by winning the 5000m at the 2003 World Championships, Tulu failed to finish in the 10,000m and it looked as though it was the beginning of the end.
Nevertheless, Tulu managed to secure a place on the Ethiopian team for the Athens Olympics while reigning world champion Berhane Adere was controversially left out. But Tulu more than proved her worth.
It was a bizarre race where Tulu’s cousin and team-mate Ejegayehu Dibaba believed she had won, only to find that China’s Xing Huina – an athlete whom Dibaba mistakenly thought was a lapped runner – had crossed the finish line ahead of her. But behind that confusion, Tulu, now 32, produced the second-fastest race of her life to take bronze in 30:26.42, 12 years after her first Olympic triumph in 1992.
That was to be Tulu’s last ever track race, but she remained competitive on the roads, finishing fourth in the World Championships marathon in 2005 and winning the 2009 New York Marathon.
The other athletes who received votes from readers of Athletics Weekly.
After a surprise breakthrough in 2003 when she won the world 5000m title at the age of 18, Dibaba went on to take bronze in the same event at the 2004 Olympics, while still a junior. Four years later, she had established herself as the best in the world and proved it by winning the 5000m and 10,000m double at the Beijing Games.
While much uncertainty surrounds Wang’s stunning world records over 3000m and 10,000m in 1993, the Chinese athlete showed her dominance at that year’s World Championships, and followed it up in 1996 with Olympic gold over 5000m and silver in the 10,000m.
The first Olympic women’s marathon was held in 1984 and that year it was the first athletics event of the programme. Rosa Mota – who had won the inaugural world title one year prior – took the bronze medal behind home favourite Joan Benoit. The Portuguese runner struck gold four years later in Seoul and went on to notch up one of the greatest competitive records in championship marathons – winning three European titles and every big city race apart from New York.
The Portuguese athlete was just 19 years old when she made her Olympic debut in 1988 and unsurprisingly did not make too big an impact in the 3000m. She similarly exited in the heats four years later in Barcelona, but after then she moved up in distance and found her best event – the 10,000m. She won world gold in 1995 and Olympic gold in 1996. At 31, she ran a PB to take bronze in Sydney and even made an appearance in Athens – her fifth Olympics – but failed to finish.
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