By Zecharias Zelalem
Winning and losing are part of sport. Hence why the ability to handle both with the utmost grace and professionalism is encompassed as part of what is labelled “sportsmanship.” But British middle distance runner Laura Muir and a consortium of media outlets appear to be having difficulty processing this concept. Their reaction and banter days after Muir’s defeats in races at the hands of Genzebe Dibaba at the recently concluded 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham would make this quite clear.
At the event that wrapped up last Sunday, the trailblazing Ethiopian star athlete rebounded from a disappointing 2017 World’s to usurp Muir’s bids to capture the 1,500m and 3000m gold medals. Genzebe won both races and steered Ethiopia to second best in the global gold medal haul, ahead of the likes of Britain, capping off a successful games for the East African nation. Muir may not have bested Genzebe, but the host nation Britain has enjoyed watching some sterling performances from their own athletes. Most notably, Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s going some way to shake off the tag of underachiever pinned to her in recent years to romp to gold in the pentathlon event had Birmingham Arena in a frenzy. But despite this, and despite the British athletics team collecting a total of seven medals at the games, second most of all competing nations, British media aren’t basking in the glory of some truly remarkable performances as much as they deserve to.
Instead, the focus appears to be on amplifying speculation and fueling baseless rumours that Genzebe Dibaba may be a drug cheat due to her relationship with an athletics coach who is under investigation for doping claims. In recent days, the number of publications releasing articles on the subject and the ample coverage accorded to very suggestive comments by both Laura Muir and her coach, Andy Young, arguably point to an attempt by British media to besmirch the Ethiopian athlete.
In statements that were published and republished by British tabloids a day after athletes started heading for home, Laura Muir said that she “no longer speaks” to Genzebe Dibaba and called her association with the Somalia born coach Jama Aden “not particularly healthy for the sport.”
The 24 year old’s comments could have come across as those of a poor sport dealing with the heartache of defeat at home. Despite the experienced Scottish athlete’s career spanning some eight years or so, one might simply attribute the outburst to nothing more than a youth’s odd loss of composure at an emotional time.
But her coach, Andy Young elected to fan the flames, echoing his protege’s statements. He even added that Sifan Hassan, who finished with a bronze in the 1500m race and appeared to sulk downtrodden while standing alongside Muir and Genzebe on the podium, was doing so out of contempt for Genzebe Dibaba and her sullying the integrity of the race. Although this is highly unlikely as Sifan Hassan’s coach Alberto Salazar himself is also under investigation for his potential involvement in a doping scandal and Sifan’s reaction was most likely down to her disappointment at being unable to win gold. Still, Young has attempted to portray Muir as having been embezzled of the gold by a drugs cheat who had an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.
The quotes from the Muir camp are highly inflammatory. It is absolutely classless and downright low on the part of both the athlete and her coach to attack a fellow athlete based on unproven allegations and embark on a less than veiled attempt at portraying one of the greatest female athletes of all time as a cheat. British media meanwhile, which has gone to great lengths to pin Genzebe’s picture all over articles subtly labeling her a doper are clearly complicit in attempting to rewrite the narrative on Genzebe’s achievements in Birmingham last week.
Genzebe Dibaba has been in the sport about as long as Muir. She is now only the fourth athlete in history to win five individual gold medals at Indoor Championships. Born into a family of world beater athletes, she has long broken away from the shadow of her accomplished older sisters Ejigayehu and Tirunesh, establishing herself as one of the most feared athletes on the track today. An incredible two week period in February 2014 in which she smashed three world records left observers awestruck. It came a year before her being named 2015 IAAF Female Athlete of the Year.
Genzebe’s coach, Jama Aden was rounded up by Spanish police in a bust targeting distributors of performance enhancing drugs in 2016. He stands accused of administering banned substances to his athletes, but has since posted bail as an investigation into his activities continues. Aden, who has coached a host of world class athletes from around the world, saw many of his athletes have their performances analysed and come in for tons of scrutiny due to their affiliation with him.
Despite the controversy surrounding her coach, Genzebe Dibaba, who continues to be tested on a regular basis, has never failed a drug test. She denies ever taking illegal substances and has made it clear that if the allegations about Aden are confirmed to be true, she will sever all ties with him. She has complied with IAAF testing policies and has never come under any suspicion for illegal activities. Unlike a host of Russian athletes who have been handed lengthy bans and have had their achievements stripped from the records, Genzebe does not have a spotty record. She has long adhered to protocol and is thus a certified drug free athlete. She has never been under the lens of investigators nor has anyone in the athletics world accused her of bending the rules. The current backlash against her is unprecedented.
Genzebe’s feats and accomplishments have her down as nothing short of iconic, exemplary and amongst Ethiopian athletics fans, who are celebrating her latest wins, legendary. In the eyes of the world, she is a crowd pleaser and single handedly guarantees droves of people showing up to a venue if word gets out that she’s due to grace the track.
What Laura Muir and her coach don’t appear to comprehend is that there isn’t a single bookkeeper in Britain, let alone elsewhere in the world that would have set the odds in Laura Muir’s favour ahead of her races with Genzebe Dibaba last week. Nine times out of ten, in the 1500m event, the Ethiopian’s blistering pace leaves the likes of Muir panting, wheezing and well out of her reach. An off day at the 2017 World Championships saw Genzebe finish last in the final six months ago, while Muir finished fourth. It was an upset, one of the worst performances of Genzebe’s career. But still the Ethiopian athlete’s prolific career by far eclipses Muir’s. The two are incomparable, Muir isn’t even on course to bringing in a third of the accolades, prize money, individual awards and recognition that Genzebe Dibaba has amassed over the course of the past decade. For Birmingham 2018, the safest bet was always going to be that the native of Bekoji, Oromia would be untouchable in the final. Sorry, finals.
Genzebe is simply the fastest, highest, and strongest of the two, as the Olympic motto would put it. Laura Muir was always an underdog heading into the races last week. There is absolutely no shame in her losing when in fact, she put up a good fight each time to collect two medals. These were some fantastic performances that Muir should look to build on. But her comments in recent days, to be blunt, are the disgraceful outbursts of a sore loser. Coach Andy Young meanwhile, expected to be a calming influence guiding his pupil via the ethics of sport, is an even bigger letdown.
But while British media moans and groans, Genzebe Dibaba’s truly golden showings in Birmingham have been feted elsewhere as the displays of a true champion. International media has showered praise upon her. “Genzebe Dibaba’s mastery of the oval continues!” is how popular athletics news outlet Letsrun.com headlined her victories. “She is untouchable!” is what France’s L’Equipe said in an article after her double gold coup. “Dibaba is golden again!” That was the title of the Polish sporting media website Sportowe Fakty’s article on the Ethiopian’s triumphant rebounding from a disappointing 2017 World Championships. Of course, adulation and praise wasn’t lacking in Ethiopia where Genzebe is a reverred icon. “Gold Again!” said the image uploaded by Ethiotube.net alongside a video of one of her races. “Genzebe does it again,” was the article atop Tadias Addis’ website. Genzebe’s wins have earned her a massive international following as admirers flock to get a glimpse of the generation’s finest. Hence the host of glowing reviews by journalists and experts alike both in Ethiopia and around the world.
But in Britain, mentions of Genzebe Dibaba were at the minimum despite her being the only athlete at the entire four day event to emerge with two gold medals. “Laura Muir takes bronze as Genzebe wins 3000m” was the BBC’s headline. Most British news portals followed suit in minimizing all mentions of Genzebe and propping up Muir as a potential heiress to the British athletics throne left by Mo Farah.
It would be forgivable for British media networks to accord more airtime and paragraphs to their own athletes. They do after all, serve a primarily British audience. But it is quite curious to note that that the only media outlets that have decided to dedicate article after article to the Laura Muir camp’s mudslinging in an effort to insinuate falsely that Genzebe Dibaba cheated her way to double gold, are British outlets.
The Guardian, BBC Sport, Daily Mail, The Mirror and several more British websites are the only ones parroting the comments made by Laura Muir and her coach. In fact, more than simply publishing what was quoted, these outlets have gone as far as trying to turn world opinion against Genzebe Dibaba. Article with sensational titles such as “Muir reveals frosty relationship with rival Genzebe,” “Muir won’t talk to gold medalist over link to tainted coach,” and “Muir reveals she no longer speaks to Genzebe” appear to be an attempt to start something out of nothing. Muir and Genzebe are nothing more than competitors who meet on the track from time to time. They were never friends or associates. They don’t train together or even live on the same continent. But the above mentioned British publications have fooled those unfamiliar with the sport into believing that two close colleagues had a fallout or are feuding over Muir’s strong anti doping stance. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The two have no relationship whatsoever. They’ve probably uttered no more than “good luck,” to each other ahead of races several times over the past five years. To say that they are “no longer on speaking terms” suggests a prior relationship or association between the two. There was none, meaning any talk of a “feud” between acquaintances is a complete and total fabrication.
Meanwhile, British sporting figures are also joining in on the finger pointing. Former British heptathlete and three time Olympic Bronze medalist Kelly Sotherton posted a tweet on her Twitter account that doesn’t mention Genzebe by name but is a clear reference to the speculation mounting against the Ethiopian in British circles.
The question is should Laura Muir really have the silver medal? #WICBham2018
— Kelly Sotherton (@KellySotherton) March 1, 2018
The British sporting world’s inability to choke down Laura Muir’s defeat has led to a campaign to tar and feather Genzebe Dibaba. In their eyes, she is guilty until proven innocent.
Ethiopians meanwhile, have taken to social media to back their heroine and have expressed anger with the way the British news networks have taken a loathing to Genzebe.
The British ought to learn from their Ethiopian counterparts. The East African athletics powerhouse, accustomed to a near unchallenged dominance of certain long distance running events, had to settle for second best for years, as a certain Mo Farah emerged onto the scene. From 2011 to 2017, Farah won nearly every 10,000 and 5,000 meter race in sight, sparing none of the major international titles as he won gold after gold at both the Olympics and the World Championships, frustrating Ethiopian athletics fans.
But Mo Farah has been widely admired and immortalized in Ethiopian media circles over the years as a respected and unbeatable foe. Despite the search for a successor to the ageing Kenenisa Bekele who would challenge Farah for major honours turning up nothing during Mo’s heyday, Ethiopians have generally taken a liking to the British athletics giant, who actually spends a good portion of his year in Ethiopia. This despite Mo Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar himself being a controversial figure himself accused of having administered banned drugs to athletes. Mo Farah has never been accused of cheating or labelled a drug user in Ethiopian media circles. If anything, British tabloids should take a chapter out of the Ethiopian book on sport reporting guidelines.
And Genzebe Dibaba?
She returned to Addis Ababa on Tuesday with the rest of her Ethiopian athletics teammates and was received by Athletics Federation coach Haile Gebrselassie who greeted her with a warm embrace. Some well deserved R & R will be immediately followed by a resumption of her training as she sets her sights on even more accolades. Reports out of Ethiopia state that she has an upcoming wedding on her mind and is finalizing plans to tie the knot. She hasn’t directly responded to the media whirlwind she left behind her in Britain, probably too preoccupied. Although on Twitter, she did share an image on her Twitter account of her stooping low to comfort a spent looking Laura Muir, exhausted and lying supine on the track.
“Always be kind,” Genzebe captioned it. She clearly prefers to do most of her talking on the track, although when she does speak out, she retains her elegance and composure.
Now if only her British counterpart could do the same.
Author: Zecharias Zelalem is a contributor for Ethiosports. The views & opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily that of Ethiosports.