Iconic Women

Derartu Tulu: Ethiopia's Olympic Trailblazer and Enduring Running Legend

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Sep 20, 2023

Derartu Tulu is an Ethiopian long-distance runner who participated in road, cross-country, and track events up to the marathon. She won gold in the 10,000-meter race at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and silver at the Olympic Games in 1992 Barcelona. In the 10,000  at the World Athletics Championships, Derartu won silver in 1995 and gold in 2001. She thrice won the IAAF World Cross Country title (1995, 1997, 2000). Since 2018, she has been president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. Tirunesh, Genzebe, and Ejegayehu Dibaba, Derartu's nieces, are among the many Olympic medalists in her sporting family. 

Ethiopian women only started their journey in sports training and competition within school settings during the 1970s. However, due to persisting cultural obstacles preventing their participation in elite sports, Ethiopian female athletes had not yet found the opportunity to compete in major international events like the Games. 

Derartu Tulu grew up tending to livestock in the same village as Kenenisa Bekele, a fellow long-distance runner,  in the mountains of Arsi Province. She is related to Ejegayehu Dibaba, Tirunesh, and Genzebe. 

Derartu became the first Ethiopian woman and the first female athlete from Africa to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the 10,000-metre race at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. The race launched her career, and she and South African Elana Meyer battled lap after lap well ahead of the competition. She raced again in the 1995 IAAF World Cross Country Championships after missing 1993 and 1994 due to a knee injury and won gold despite showing up only an hour before the race. She remained awake for the entire day in the Athens airport. Fernanda Ribeiro defeated her in the same year she placed second in the 10,000-meter world championships.

Her 1996 election campaign was brutal. After losing her shoe during the race, Derartu had to fight back to place fourth at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. She finished fourth at the Olympics as she was recovering from an injury. She won the cross-country world championship twice in 1997, although she skipped the 10,000 m competition. In 1998, she gave birth to a daughter named Tsion.

She left again in 2000, in the best physical shape of her life. She won Olympic gold for the second time and $10,000 in prize money, making history as the first woman to accomplish so in the event's brief history. She also brought home a third victory at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.  In 2001, she ultimately won the 10,000-meter world championship in Edmonton, Alberta. This was her third gold medal overall from the Olympics. 

Since she has a long-standing rivalry with Paula Radcliffe, the marathon world record holder, Derartu decided not to run in the 2004 New York Marathon. Instead, she concentrated on the Olympics, finishing third in the 10,000-meter race behind Xing Huina and her cousin Ejegayehu Dibaba. (Radcliffe was unable to complete.)

While the majority of her former competitors retired, Derartu carried on running competitively into her late 30s. Her most recent marathon victory occurred in Yokohama in 2011. She is remembered for her pace and last lap time of 60.3 seconds in the 10,000 metres at the Sydney Olympics. The Olympics was a noteworthy sprint. Since November 14, 2018, she has served as the Ethiopian Athletics Federation's (EAF) president.


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