05 June, 2017

Golden Gala: Dibaba and Obiri for a dream 5000m encounter

At the Olympic Stadium in Rome, on June 8th, the 1500m world record holder up against the current season leader

The Rome Olympic Stadium track has produced great performances in the 5000 metres in the past. This year marks both the 60th anniversary of the world record set by Vladimir Kuts and the 30th anniversary of the first sub-13-minute time clocked by Said Aouita, the small and versatile prince of the desert. He broke the world record in the Golden Gala edition, which took place shortly before the 1987 World Championships in Rome.

One year ago another world record was under threat during the Italian leg of the Diamond League. The very light and almost ethereal Almaz Ayana threatened Tirunesh Dibaba’s reign. She is nicknamed the gentle killer because of her final kicks launched by such a mild-faced woman. She clocked 14:12.59 in a crescendo of cheers and in a wave of support, missing the 14:11.15 world record set nine years ago at the Bislett Stadium by less than one second and a half.

The race at the Rome Olympic Stadium can be recorded as a preview of the world record race run, when Almaz clocked a Zatopekesque 29:17.45 in Rio in the greatest 10,000m race in history. Four women under the 30-minutes and Vivian Cheruiyot finished second, narrowly missing Wang’s terrifying world record time.

A few days later Ayana was bidding to make the double, but was crushed by the team tactic of the Kenyan runners, who are often accused of poor tactical spirit, like their male colleagues. The title went to the tiny and nice Vivian, who has turned to the 42 km in the meantime. The Ethiopian runner, who is essential like a cast figure of the great painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti, had to settle with third place behind Hellen Obiri, whom it may appear disrespectful to consider as a supporting runner or first lieutenant. It’s right to remind also Mercy Cherono, who finished fourth and third of the Kenyan runners, who contributed to crush Ayana.

Hellen comes to the head-to-head clash against Genzebe Dibaba as the world season leader with her 14:22.47 set in Shanghai. The 5000m race will be one of the highlights of the 8th June evening in Rome. The 27-year-old runner, born in Kisii in the district of Nyanza, not far from the border with Tanzania, became the sixth best performer in history behind an Ethiopian quartet formed by Tirunesh Dibaba, Almaz Ayana, Meseret Defar and Genzebe Dibaba and her compatriot Vivian Cheruiyot, who ran faster than Obiri by little more than one second and a half with 14:20.87. To add extra spice to this race between the first and the second ranked athletes in 2017, it must be said that in the 5000m race in Eugene held on Friday in the day dedicated to Joan Benoit, the first olympic gold medallist in women’s marathon, Genzebe (another runner born in the highland town of Bekoji) made a serious attempt at breaking her elder sister’s world record until the 3000m mark (8:39.21 to 8:38.83), but faded in the second half and crossed the finish-line in 14:25.22, missing her personal best set two years ago in St. Denis by ten seconds. She ran her second race of the year after clocking 1:59.27 in the 800 metres in Doha behind powerful runners Caster Semenya and Margaret Wambui. This personal best does not say too much. In the period when she ran her 1500m world record in Monaco (3:50.07) before winning the world title in Beijing, Genzebe consistently ran sub-2 minutes split times in training or in races, which started at a slow pace.

Hellen, who won the world indoor title in Istanbul 2012 and the world indoor silver medal in Sopot 2014 as well as the 5000m silver in Rio, opted to run the 1500m, where she edged Scottish runner Laura Muir by a very narrow margin with a time just over 4 minutes. The graceful tiny figure of Faith Kipyegon, the reigning Olympic champion, prevailed in the Eugene race clocking her second performance under the 4 minutes barrier in as many races in 2017.