Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba crushed a field of the world’s best women in the 1500 meter business yesterday, July 17th, at a Diamond League meet in Monaco. She scorched the three-and-a-half lap race in 3:50.07, shaving nearly half a second off Qu Yunxia’s 22-year-old mark of 3:50.46 and improving her own previous best by more than four seconds.
The youngest Dibaba sister adds this 1500-meter world record to the three she currently holds, the indoor 1500 meter, 3000 and 5000.
Given this dominance, it’s hard to express how astounding her latest accomplishment is. For one thing, Yunxia’s turtle soup-and-fungus-assisted record from 1993 has been in the same impossible category as Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15 marathon—so far out that, to the benefit of the sport, women have been racing each other for the win or for a personal best rather than even considering a world record. Omitting Dibaba’s 3:54 and 3:50 performances—both in the last month—the top thirteen 1500 performances of all time were posted by Ma’s Army, the crop of Chinese women raised by now-discredited coach Ma Junren in 1993 and 1997, a Russian and a Romanian in the 1980s. And even those times, widely seen as dirty, end up with #13 at 3:55.07.
It’s hard to say why Yunxia’s 3:50 is questionable and Dibaba’s is not, other than association—Yunxia, like the rest of Junren’s athletes, were setting world records in distances from 1500 meters to the marathon, sometimes days apart. Their extreme training, and the fact that Junren was eventually busted prior to the 2000 Olympics, cast doubt on the entire program.
Dibaba trains with other Ethiopian greats, including her sisters, in Addis, and her progression in the middle distances has been steady, if significant. There is not a whiff of suspicion around the camera-ready 24-year-old, though her best at the distance last year was a relatively pedestrian 4:01, and prior to this year, 3:57.54 set in 2013. So, in the course of one season, Dibaba improved by a whopping 7 seconds, from world class to off-the-charts. Once at that rarified level, improvements normally come in tenths of a second; a one or two second improvement is huge.
Women’s middle distances as a whole are enjoying unprecedented gains. This Monaco race was a perfect example: Six women in this one showdown broke four minutes. In 2011, in the entire outdoor season, not a single woman worldwide broke four minutes for 1500 meters. Nine of the fourteen women in the Monaco race set personal bests, including Shannon Rowbury who finished third in 3:56.29, a new American record. So while the tide is raising all boats, Dibaba’s has apparently been fit with fancy jets. And wings.
It could be argued there was something in the perfumed air of Monaco, maybe the scent of money, that produced an evening of smoking performances. Kenyan Asbel Kiprop set his spidery legs on high right from the get-go and towed the whole men’s 1500 field to blazing times—he just missed the world record, posting a 3:26.69. The men’s 800 meter race, too, was hot with unknown Bosnian Amel Tuka blasting a world leading 1:42.51, and our own Boris Berian, showing with bittersweet authority (he failed to make the US World Championship team) that he belongs in the top echelon with a 1:43.34 personal best. Justin Gatlin continues to win races, if not hearts and minds, as he came out on top in the 100 meters with a 9.78-second scamper. And though she’s not searing eyeballs and making people shout out loud, American Francena McCorory is quietly, consistently killing in the 400. She went to the office in Monaco and got the job done in 49.83 seconds. She is rock solid.
Race organizers in Monaco splash the cash, for sure, and the meet happens at a time on the calendar when the horses are coming into their top form, approaching the August World Championships, so really fast running is nearly guaranteed. I would like to include another factor, a certain je ne sais quoi that defines Monaco. The weather is perfect, the sky is purple, the people are attractive, the food is divine, and the wine does not give you a headache. There are yachts. There are no starving people in Monaco, and no shacks. It’s very small and very exclusive and the bar is set very high. The best is expected, and usually delivered.
Photo credit: Claude Paris/Associated Press