Throwback Thursday: Ayana’s record that stunned the world

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Almaz Ayana after dominating her way to a world gold in 2017. Picture: Marco Verch via Flickr

Rarely has an Olympic gold been so dominant in recent times.

With the world watching on the grandest stage in 2016, Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana geared up for only her second ever competitive 10,000m race.

Not only did she take the gold, she absolutely annihilated the nearly 23-year-old 10,000m world record set by Wang Junxia, shaving 14 seconds off it in a time of 29:17.45.

This was mind-boggling running from an athlete who was still relatively new to the scene.

Everybody already knew she top class. The previous year she produced a stunning performance at the IAAF Diamond League in Shanghai, where she ran what was then the third fastest time ever for 5000m with relative ease.

However, the moment she truly grabbed everyone’s attention was at the 2015 World Championships when she stepped into the 5000m to face the favourite and the 1500m world record breaker Genzebe Dibaba.

Despite having already competed in the 1500m that tournament, Dibaba had been tipped for double gold, with a near-perfect year seeing her sweep aside all before her and become the fastest of all time.

But when she came up against Ayana, the losing feeling came back with an almighty crash.

On the sixth lap of the final, Ayana ghosted to the front, upping the pace by six seconds, leaving Dibaba with no choice but to go with her.

With the gauntlet thrown down, the 1500m record holder was finding Ayana’s power and endurance simply too much to contend with.

There had been talk of a battle between Ayana’s endurance and Dibaba’s speed. But the former was so strong that it cast the latter into irrelevance.

The gap was only getting bigger, with Ayana leading the pre-race favourite by over 50m. She was too strong and displayed just how good a runner she was by winning her first ever world title with the race virtually over with three laps to go.

One year later, as Ayana headed to Rio for her first Olympic Games, it was time for her to find out what it felt like to be the favourite.

Despite the fact she had only ever run one 10,000m competitively, Ayana’s 5000m performances that year meant that most expected her to come out on top. But while many did expect her to win, few could have predicted the manner that she was about to do it in.

With Ethiopian great Tirunesh Dibaba on the start line along with the Kenyan world champion Vivian Cheruiyot, Ayana once again set about her mission.

This time, nobody in history could answer to her. As she kept up her record-breaking pace, all those who chased her slowly dropped off until once again, the 23-year-old was competing virtually on her own.

“It was the craziest race I’ve ever been in.” said Great Britain’s Jo Pavey, who was at the time competing in her fifth Olympic Games. While she was 15th, she watched Ayana glide past her and most of the field as she won her first Olympic gold with an astonishing and unbelievable 29:17.45 world record, finishing nearly 100m ahead of second-placed Vivian Cheruiyot who had just run one second under the previous world record, yet been dominated by Ayana.

A record as big as this was seen as divisive, with figures such as former Olympic and world medallists Paula Radcliffe and Brendan Foster raising doubts over its legitimacy.

“I’m not sure that I can understand that”, said Radcliffe. “When I saw the world record set in 1993, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and Ayana has absolutely blitzed that time.” But Ayana was quick to defend herself and told Reuters that “through hard work anyone can succeed. There are many who suspect doping to have taken place whenever a race is won or a record is broken. I don’t accept this.”

With no concrete evidence of Ayana having taken any banned substances, some suspicions were suspected to have originated in Ethiopia. The Guardian reported on concerns that the performance-enhancing drug EPO was readily available “over the counter”.

As far as Ayana was concerned, she had consistently tested clean, and her remarkable achievements in Rio were just that.

Maintaining that speculation is unfair, the athlete who turned 27 this week has kicked on from her Rio gold with more impressive and dominant victories. It may not be long before she takes her place among the all-time distance running greats.

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First published on: 22 November, 2018 7:14 pm

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