RIO DE JANEIRO – Ethiopia's Almaz Ayana destroyed a 23-year-old world record on the opening day of athletics in Rio on Friday, crossing the finish line in 29:17.45 for a a gold medal in the women’s 10,000 meters.
Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot won the silver medal in 29:32.53, and defending Olympic champion Tiruesh Dibaba finished in 29:42.56 to claim the bronze medal.
There were times throughout the race where Ayana found herself more than 10 seconds ahead of the previous world record pace. Kenya’s Betsy Saina, who lives and trains in the United States, says the Kenyan team discussed a plan to take first two-kilometers easy and then test their tactics in the final eight kilometers to break Ayana. It was to no avail. Kenya’s gold medal drought in the event would continue as silver in Cheruiyot.
“To be honest, it doesn’t matter what plan you have.” Saina says. “She’s great and she’s amazing. There’s nothing you can do to stop her. Our tactics didn’t work out but it didn’t matter because she was still going to win it.”
The world record of 29:31.78 was previous held by Wang Junxia of China, who recently admitted to being a part of a state-sponsored Chinese doping regime. The Chinese record was not just broken but shattered to a million little pieces thanks to 14:46 and 14:31 splits at 5,000 meters. (To put the blistering pace into perspective, the American record for 5,000 meters by Molly Huddle is 14:42.64 and only three American women have ever run faster than 14:46.)
Ayana lightly laughed at any suggestion of her being a dirty athlete in the post-race press conference.
“My doping is my training,” Ayana says. “My doping is Jesus. Otherwise, I’m crystal clear.”
After running 30:13.17 for sixth place, Molly Huddle walked through the media room at the Olympic Stadium without a shiny medal of any hue around her neck, despite the fact that the time would have earned her medal at every previous Olympics and gold at six of seven of them. Instead, she held the consolation prize of the American record. That’s the case for now at least.
“These places might be a bit mobile—who knows,” Huddle says. “That’s a very, very fast time.”
The previous American record of 30:22.22 was set by Shalane Flanagan at the 2008 Olympic in Beijing, where she took a conservative approach and picked off runners who faded from trying to follow Tirunesh Dibaba. Flanagan also has her share of heartbreak from the Boston Marathon as she finished behind EPO cheat Rita Jeptoo of Kenya. She’s shared the same feeling as Huddle in too many races.
“I wish there was something I could say that would make [Molly] feel better, but as an athlete I know exactly how she feels,” Flanagan says. “She is frustrated and mourning the loss of a dream—a medal. The American record is just a consolation prize in a way. She ran so tough and all of America is proud of her. I wish she could feel the elation I felt in Beijing.”
Flanagan’s medal in Beijing may be upgraded to silver due to the recent re-testing of anti-doping samples and a reported positive test from Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse, who finished one place ahead of her. The bronze would be passed along to fourth-place finisher Jo Pavey of Great Britain, who finished 15th on Friday at 42 years old. Pavey says she has no evidence to call Ayana dirty but acknowledged the integrity of the sport has been tested in recent years.
“I felt like in a lot of my career, I’ve missed out on moments that I should’ve had—same as many athletes and missing out on moments that they should’ve had,” Pavey says. “I hope we’ve gotten through those dark days and we have a brighter future for the sport.”
In American distance running, Huddle has been one of those glimmers of hope. She’s won six national titles and closed the gap in competition against East Africans. Last summer, Huddle prematurely celebrated and was outleaned by compatriot Emily Infeld just inched before the finish line of the 10,000 final at the world championships in Beijing. It cost her the bronze medal by .09 seconds. Heartbreak comes in a different form in Brazil.
“I’ll just keep telling myself to keep fighting in the race and don’t feel bad about anything because you don’t know what your place really is,” Huddle says.
Though she claimed the first gold medal of the athletics program, Ayana's time in Rio is not over. The 24-year-old is set to compete for a second gold medal in the 5,000 meters next Friday.