Tirunesh Dibaba won the distance double in Beijing, dominating two distinctly different types of races. In the 10k, she ran an Olympic Record and one of the fastest times ever. Elvan Abeylegesse took the lead and pushed the pace, with Dibaba trailing the entire way. Then in the final 400m Dibaba turned it on as only she can, sprinting away to Olympic gold.
In the 5k, nobody was willing to run that race against Dibaba. So everyone sat back and waited, hoping they'd be able to take her in a sprint (or at least beat enough people to get a medal). The race was appallingly slow, and Dibaba sprinted away from everyone to take the gold. Abeylegesse proved she is the second best long distance runner in the world right now, as she hung on for silver, her second of Beijing.
Pat Butcher, a journalist who covers running, wasn't satisfied though. In this scathing article he rebukes Dibaba's races and questions her courage, initiative, and self-respect. Why? Because she didn't lead her races until the end. Because she knew she could win with her kick, and did so. In short, because she was predictable and boring.
As I read it, I get the impression Mr. Butcher's been following running a long time, is a bit bored and jaded with African runners' domination the past couple decades, and has decided he can only accept excellence if it is entertaining. It's not enough for athletes to break Olympic records or win gold, Mr. Butcher wants to see them do it in epic fashion.
And who knows. Maybe he's right. Maybe "The Baby-faced Destroyer" is the most boring runner ever. (In my book, having that nickname automatically excludes her from the discussion, but still...) It brings up an interesting question: Would it benefit Tirunesh Dibaba to run differently?
Competitively, it's hard to argue that it would. The goal is, after all, to win championship races and achieve to the level of your potential. It may be great entertainment when someone does both at the same time (see also: Usain Bolt), but few athletes ever demand both in a setting like the Olympics. Dibaba was no different; she focused on winning the races. She's already proven that she can run fast times. Now she's proven she can win championship races. Most people would argue she's done it all. Except, Mr. Butcher, I imagine, because she hasn't done both while entertaining him. So if she cares to know whether she can do that AND win, too, then I suppose there is some benefit to changing her approach.
Monetary benefits, however, are another story. Might it not make her more appealing to sponsors if she ran like Steve Prefontaine, leading from the gun and dissing her opponents guts (all with a bushy mustache, of course)? Doing so might set her up to lose races to rivals like Meseret Defar, but if she could pull it off, wouldn't there be a windfall waiting for her? I actually don't think so. It might be appealing to us as fans to see her run this way, but are we going to pay her to do it? I wouldn't, though I can't speak for Mr. Butcher.
I'm a big believer in running risky races. I think you need to push yourself and take chances and not be afraid to fail. But there's a difference between being successful and being entertaining. The more risk, the more entertaining, of course. But when your risk decreases your chances of achieving your goal, you have to consider the benefits.
My guess is Dibaba did. And having Pat Butcher as a fan simply didn't hold as much value to her as the opportunity to win two gold medals. One wonders how she ever came to that conclusion.