July 05, 2007

Meseret Defar: from Bydgoszcz to world beater

Thursday 5 July 2007

The name of Meseret Defar stands out from among the medallists at the inaugural IAAF World Youth Championships in the Polish City of Bydgoszcz.

The Ethiopian runner has gone from being an outstanding teenage athlete to an Olympic champion and World record breaker, becoming one of the most high profile women in contemporary athletics, and Defar charts some of her desire to succeed to her first outing on the global stage.

"It was my first trip outside Ethiopia, and I was only 15 so it was like going to a different planet. This year, by comparison, I will probably travel to at least 15 different countries but back then everything was very new and very strange from what I was used to.

"I was familiar with Addis Ababa but even though it is a big city, and although in 1999 some modernisation had started, it is very different to being in Europe.

Press nerves

"I finished second in the 3000m (behind Kenya's Alice Timbilil), just losing out in a sprint and I remember doing the press conference after the race in a small cabin behind the main stand. I didn't speak any English then and I answered a few questions through a translator but I was very nervous, I was almost grateful that the journalists wanted to talk more to the Kenyan girl who won," jokes Defar.

Timbilil, who has since been to the two most recent Olympic Games and who was to finish second at the 2005 IAAF World Cross Country Championships long race, and Defar lead home a field that included a host of future stars of the sport.

Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot picked up the bronze behind the leading pair. She remains well-acquainted with Defar to this day, chasing her home at the IAAF Golden League meeting in Oslo last month when Defar set the world 5000m record of 14:16.63, with Cheruiyot also getting inside the old mark with 14:22.51.

Two places further back was Turkey's Elvan Abeylegesse, who preceded Defar as the World record holder for 5000m; eighth was Uganda's Dorcus Inzikuru, the 2005 3000m Steeplechase World champion while Russia's 2006 European 10,000m gold medallist Inga Abitova finished back in 11th.

"When I got back to Ethiopia, everybody was very happy that I had won the silver and although I had desperately wanted to win the gold, like any athlete, but I was still pleased with the silver medal.

Mother unconvinced

"However, the funny thing is that my mother was not too impressed because all I came home with was a medal. She said to me, 'how can you make a living from athletics, you didn't come back with any money'. She didn't understand that the money would come later.

"My mother still wanted me to think more about doing what she had done and be a good wife to whoever I was going to marry but I wanted to be an international athlete and going to Bydgoszcz showed me that was possible.

"I've always been a runner ever since I was little and used to run to visit my father in the garage where he worked as a mechanic. All the village used to call me little Derartu because that was not long after Derartu Tulu had won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. I guess I must have been about eight or nine years old.

"My mother's attitude finally changed three years later when I won the World Junior title in Jamaica. She finally realised that I could be a good athlete and make a living from the sport and how important running was to me.

"The World Youth Championships in 1999 remains very special to me because it was my first major medal and it confirmed to me that I could be a success. However, the curious thing is, I have all my other big races on video or DVD but it's the only one I don't have. I like to sometimes watch my good races again but with this one I'm having to rely on my memory," reflects Defar.

Phil Minshull for the IAAF

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