Ethiopian distance runner Tirunesh Dibaba made history at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when she became the first woman to win gold in both the 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre races. She defended her gold medal title in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first woman to win the event at two consecutive Olympics.
She was inspired by a family of runners. In fact, she and her sisters have been amazing in the field of distance running. The Dibaba sisters — Tirunesh, Genzebe, Anna, and Melat — are the only siblings in recorded history to hold concurrent world records, and they are a fiercely competitive family from a humble background.
They were raised in a round mud hut in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, without electricity. Their parents were subsistence farmers who grew wheat, barley, and teff. The Dibaba siblings are seven in all, and all of them run. Tirunesh, however, is the most decorated, having three Olympic gold medals. She had wanted to enroll in school but opted for the Corrections (Prisons Police) sports club.
At age 15, she debuted internationally on Ethiopia’s junior squad at the 2001 world cross-country championships, where she placed fifth. She continued with junior-level silver medals in cross-country and on the track in 2002. She won the world junior cross-country title in 2003, set a 5,000-metre junior world record, and won gold in the 5,000 meters at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) world track and field championships, making her the youngest-ever world champion in her sport.
Her sister, Genzebe, is not doing badly in sports. Ejegayehu, who is their older sister, is also an Olympian who won silver from Athens. Their cousin, Derartu Tulu, was the first Black African woman to win Olympic gold in the 1992 games. She won another Olympic gold medal in Sydney in 2000.
“It’s not a stretch to say they are the world’s fastest family”, Ato Boldon, NBC’s track analyst, told Vogue in 2016. The sisters have remained a household name in Ethiopia, a country that has produced some of the world’s greatest runners, alongside Kenya.
The mother of the Dibaba sisters told Vogue that the siblings are successful thanks to the environment they were raised in, especially the ready supply of milk they get from the family cows. According to Vogue, author David Epstein has said that much of Ethiopia and Kenya lies in an altitude “sweet spot” high enough to cause physiological changes but not so high that the air is too thin for hard training.
The runners’ feat is also attributed to their diet — especially teff rich in iron and calcium — and their “small lightweight frame”. The Dibaba sisters have the body type good for sports, analysts say. Boldon said in 2016 that if one compares the sisters to a car, they would be a Ford Focus with a Ferrari engine.
The Dibabas are good at sports but they don’t really like watching sports. They prefer movies, especially Amharic films, said Tirunesh, who in 2008 married fellow track-and-field Olympic medalist Sileshi Sihine in a nationally televised wedding ceremony.
And just like other successful athletes, the Dibabas have invested their monies back into their communities. The sisters, alongside their in-laws, are real estate moguls owning several buildings in Addis Ababa. Still, the sisters continue to shine brightly in the sports world.