Two decades since Defar underlined the 3000m

Edwin  - CEO March 7, 2024
Updated 2024/03/08 at 6:04 AM
11 Min Read
Meseret Defar at the 2010 World Indoor Championships in Doha (© Getty Images): World Athletics
Meseret Defar at the 2010 World Indoor Championships in Doha (© Getty Images): World Athletics

As the Ethiopian parade event

Meseret Defar wins the 3000m at the 2004 World Indoor Championships in Budapest (© Getty Images)

Just before the bell sounded in the women’s 3000m final at the 2004 World Athletics Indoor Championships, Meseret Defar, Simon Turnbull reports for World Athletics, slipped into the lead.


The diminutive 20-year-old Ethiopian was swiftly passed by her towering 30-year-old compatriot, Berhane Adere. The pair struck a stark contrast as they proceeded to slug out a ding-dong battle on the final circuit of the Budapest Sportarena.


Today, 7 March 2004, was the 20th anniversary of the concluding day of action in the Hungarian capital. It was the day Ethiopia took a stranglehold on the women’s 3000m at the World Indoor Championships.

Twelve months previously, in Birmingham, Adere had claimed a place in the history books as the first Ethiopian woman to win a world indoor title in any event. The teenaged Defar was the second, taking bronze in the same race.


In all, from 2003 until the dramatic outcome of the 2024 final in Glasgow last Saturday (2 March) – when USA’s Elle St Pierre produced the mother of all finishes to snatch victory from Gudaf Tsegay in a championship record of 8:20.87 – Ethiopians won nine of the ten finals contested.


That represents precisely half of the world’s indoor gold medal haul gained by Ethiopian women.


Bold by name


The question, back in 2004, was: which Ethiopian woman would emerge victorious on the final lap in Budapest?


Adere was the firm favorite. The late bloomer was on a seemingly relentless roll, having smashed the world indoor 3000m record in 2002 and claimed the world indoor 3000m and outdoor 10,000m titles in 2003.


Defar, however, had shown possession of a Midas touch of her own at global level: at the 2002 World U20 Championships in Kingston.


To the joyous Jamaicans packing the 36,000-capacity National Stadium all week, the stand-out performer was the young fast-bowling cricketer from Sherwood Content, who skittled the opposition in the junior men’s 200m.


At 5ft 1in, the 18-year-old Defar was not quite as big a deal, in physical terms, as the 6ft 5in 15-year-old phenomenon called Usain Bolt.


Still, the elfin Ethiopian managed to make a considerable impact, living up to the meaning of her last name in the Amharic language of her homeland: bold.


After speeding to gold in the 3000m on the opening day, the dynamic Defar emerged victorious from a gripping finish in the 5000m final on the last day of competition in the Jamaican capital.


Meseret Defar wins at the 2002 World U20 Championships in KingstonMeseret Defar wins at the 2002 World U20 Championships in Kingston (© Getty Images)/World Athletics


On that occasion, seven runners were still in contention for the medals as the bell sounded. Rounding into the home straight, Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot led the way before two Ethiopians flashed past her, Defar outsprinting Tirunesh Dibaba to become the first woman to complete the world U20 double at 3000m and 5000m.


Thus began a rivalry between the two young Ethiopians that was to light up the world stage for a decade.


Seven medals


Two years later, though, a far more seasoned compatriot stood between Defar and glory on the senior global stage in Budapest.


By then, Defar had already made her mark at the senior level, earning bronze in the world indoor 3000m behind Adere and Spain’s Marta Dominguez in Birmingham in March 2003.


Later that year, however, in her first major outdoor championships, she crashed in the 5000m heats at the World Championships in Paris, suffering from injury and illness.


Adere produced a stunning 10,000m victory in the French capital, clocking a championship best 30:04.18; Dibaba struck gold in the 5000m final at 18.


Defar had claimed Adere’s prized scalp in the build-up to the 2004 World Indoor Championships, getting the better of her over 3000m back in Birmingham.


However, her compatriot had produced the performance of the indoor season leading into Budapest, taking the world indoor 5000m record down from 14:47.35 to 14:39.29 in Stuttgart.


Both women kept their powder dry for an explosive finish in the 3000m final in the Hungarian capital.


Defar and Adere were content to sit back in the pack as Dominguez led the field through the first 1000m in a dawdling 3:21.10 – 10:03.30 pace for the entire distance.


Meseret Defar in the 3000m at the 2004 World Indoor Championships in BudapestMeseret Defar in the 3000m at the 2004 World Indoor Championships in Budapest (© Getty Images)/World Athletics 

With three laps to go, Defar moved up onto Domniguez’s shoulder, drawing Adere with her. Then, just before the bell sounded, Defar slipped past the Spaniard to take the lead—only for Adere to snatch it before the first curve on the final circuit.


Adere led by a step down the back straight, but approaching the final turn, her young rival drew level. The pair were locked together around the bend and into the finishing straight.


Then, 20 meters from the line, Defar edged ahead. She crossed the line in 9:11.22, 0.21 ahead of the now-former champion.


The smooth-striding Defar became the most successful athlete in women’s 3000m history at the World Athletics Indoor Championships, winning seven medals: four golds, two silvers, and one bronze.

She won four successive finals.


In Moscow in 2006, she uncorked a final lap of 27.45 to win by 25 meters. In Valencia in 2008, she kicked off the front to win by a margin similar to that of her Ethiopian teammate Meselech Melkamu.


Then, in Doha in 2010, Defar claimed her fourth successive title in style.


Again, she kicked from the front with the devastating change of gear that had become her trademark. Her closing lap of 27.90 was quicker than the victorious Bernard Lagat’s final circuit in the men’s final 24 hours later. The Kenyan Cheruiyot, who became another closely matched senior rival outdoors, finished 0.65 behind in second.


Defar’s drive for five in a row was denied in Istanbul two years later when Kenya’s Hellen Obiri overhauled her with 100 meters to go.


She attempted a fifth win in Portland in 2016 but, in her first global championship appearance in three years, had to settle for another silver medal lining behind the new Ethiopian golden girl, Genzebe Dibaba, the 2014 champion and younger sister of Tirunesh.


Nonetheless, those fantastic four successive 3000m successes put Defar among the all-time greats of the World Indoor Championships.


Only two women have won more individual gold medals: Mozambique’s Maria Mutola in the 800m (seven) and Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova in the high jump (five).


Late Olympic selection


Defar’s breakthrough in Budapest in March 2004 was the launch pad for an unlikely Olympic triumph in Athens five months later.


Defar was named in the Ethiopian team only as a reserve for the 5000m. Only when Adere was dropped from the 10,000m, allowing Ejegayehu Dibaba to move up to the more extended event, was she promoted to the team? The change came so late that she was listed as a reserve on the official entry list.


She could keep a killer finish in reserve that earned her the gold. With 200m remaining, she swept past Kenya’s Isabella Ochichi with such decisiveness she finished 15m clear. Tirunesh Dibaba came through for the bronze.


Meseret Defar wins the 5000m at the 2004 Athens OlympicsMeseret Defar wins the 5000m at the 2004 Athens Olympics (© Getty Images)/World Athletics

“I had been entered as the fourth team member, and my morale had taken a beating,” Defar confessed. “Every time I thought about the possibility of not running, I cried.


“God saw me through – God and the support of my family and fiancé.”


Four years later, in Beijing, Defar lost her Olympic 5000m crown to Tirunesh Dibaba, finishing in the bronze medal position. However, in London in 2012, she denied her arch-rival a historic back-to-back Olympic 5000 m-10,000 m double.


Eight days after retaining the 10,000m title, Dibaba had no answer when Defar pounced at the head of the home straight in the 5000m final. She faded to third as Defar celebrated an Olympic double of her own: two golds, eight years apart.


She also won two world 5000m titles six years apart, in Osaka in 2007 and Moscow in 2013.


Then there were the world records: two at 5000m outdoors (14:24.53 in New York in 2006 and a stunning 14:16.63 in Oslo a year later); two indoors, at 3000m (8:23.72 in Stuttgart in 2007) and 5000m (14:24.36 in Stockholm in 2009).


There were also two world outdoor bests at two miles: 9:10.47 at Carson City in 2007 and 8:58.58 in Brussels.


The medals and the records were all hugely impressive, but the sight of Meseret Defar kicking into the last lap overdrive, fair flapping, was one awe-inspiring sight to behold.


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