Olympic Track: Women's Distance Running Characterized by East African Dominance

Dan HopeContributor IIIAugust 10, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10:  Meseret Defar of Ethiopia celebrates as she crosses the finish line ahead of Jepkemoi Jepkemoi Cheruiyot of Kenya and Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia celebrates winning gold in the Women's 5000m Final on Day 14 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 10, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

There is a severe lack of parity at the top of the women’s long-distance running world. East African nations Ethiopia and Kenya have traditionally dominated the distance running events of Olympic track and field, and they have done a tremendous job of tightening their stranglehold on the women’s competition at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Their dominance was never more clear than in Friday’s 5,000-meter run final. Ethiopia and Kenya each sent their full allotment of three runners to the final, and those runners combined to take the top six places in the event. Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar won gold in 15 minutes, 4.25 seconds, and the two nations alternated places through the sixth position.

These results nearly mirrored those of the 10,000-meter run final from one week earlier. In that race, the nations combined to take the top five spots, and had Kenya’s Joyce Chepkirui not been forced to withdraw early from the race due to injury, they may have monopolized the top six again. Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba took the top spot in 30:20.75 while Kenya’s Sally Kipyego and Vivian Cheruiyot took silver and bronze behind her.

In the two major distance races of the Olympics, Ethiopia took three medals, Kenya took three and no other nation cracked the podium. The nations also combined for the top two spots in the marathon and four of the top six places in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

The distance realm is not without parity as Russia’s Yuliya Zaripova and Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi took gold and silver in the steeple while Turkey’s Asli Cakir Alpetin and Gamze Bulut and Bahrain’s Maryam Yusuf Jamal kept the powerhouses completely off the podium in the 1,500-meter run.

The 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter, however, are the marquee events of long-distance running in Olympic track and field, and in those events, the rest of the world simply has not been able to keep up with these East African powers.

In 2012 alone, 15 of the world’s 16 fastest female 5,000-meter runners are from either Kenya or Ethiopia while the six fastest 10,000-meter runners are from one of the two nations. Clearly these two nations have found the formula for success in women’s distance running. The rest of the world has yet to catch up.

The East African dominance in these events is not new. Ethiopia has now medaled in six consecutive Games in the 10,000-meter. In the 5,000-meter, which first became a women’s Olympic event at the 1996 Games, one of the two nations has had a medalist in every Games, with those nations combining for eight of nine overall medals in the past three Games.

The closest challenger to breaking up the East African duopoly in the two events, at least in 2012, was Great Britain, whose Joanne Pavey and Julia Bleasdale finished seventh and eighth in both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter. Bahrain also had a top-ten finisher in both events, while Japan had two in the 10,000-meter.

The United States has the deepest track and field program of any nation, but they did not show up well in the distance races at the 2012 Games. In 2008, Shalane Flanagan managed a bronze-medal performance in the 10,000-meter, but in 2012, the U.S. did not put a woman in the top ten of the 5,000-meter or 10,000-meter.

For now and for the foreseeable future, it seems likely that Ethiopia and Kenya will control the top of the podium in distance running as they are deep and rich with talented women in every event from the 1,500-meter to the marathon, and at least in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter, few other legitimate medal contenders have emerged in recent years.

Dan Hope is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist covering the 2012 Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.