Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Calculus Of Enjoying Almaz Ayana's World Record

Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP
Photo credit: David J. Phillip/AP

The Olympic 10,000 meters was eyeballs out, hands down the fastest, deepest women’s 25-lap race I have ever seen. But instead of cheers, before the race was even over, half of the commentariat lit up with shouts of “Dirty!”

Welcome to track—and sports—in 2016. Bombarded with an entire country doping as a matter of government-run course, an anti-doping agency that in some cases facilitates doping, a famous coach caught with a large stash of EPO at a training camp full of world-class runners, and corrupt leadership at the IOC and IAAF, track fans’ eyes are wide open.

Of course, suspicion is not new—we’ve already cut our teeth on such meaty stuff as the 1980's Eastern Bloc machine, Ma’s Army, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones. The scale, the worldwide scope (in the early 2000s, it was still believable that Kenyans living la vida rustic—hopefuls from the villages showed up at races barefoot—would not have the funds or access to PEDs), and the stark realization that WADA and the IAAF were not interested in clean sport—that’s why this feels new. That’s what’s different.


But while all would agree that doping is an undeniable part of elite level track and field, few would say that all top athletes are dirty. So where do you draw the line—just certain countries? Only world record breakers? First place? What about tenth?

The many hours I spent arguing with myself, trying to understand what I had just witnessed as Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana smashed the 10k world record are symptomatic of the new era of track and field. Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh summed it up well:

This much is unequivocal: Almaz Ayana set a new 10,000-meter world record of 29:17.45, destroying the 23-year-mark of 29:31.78; seven other national 10k records were improved, including the American one, by Molly Huddle; 18 of the 37 runners in the field set lifetime bests; four of the five fastest 10,000-meter times ever were run in the race; four women dipped under the 30-minute mark, which has never before happened in the same race; there were no Russian runners in the field because of the IAAF’s ban of its track and field athletes; and Molly Huddle placed sixth in a time, 30:13, that would’ve been good enough for gold in six of the last seven Olympics.

There are a few main arguments for believing that Ayana’s eye-watering performance was tainted.


Ayana Crushed What Is Widely Believed To Be A Doped Record

When she set the 10,000-meter world record in 1993, the veracity of Wang Junxia’s performance was questioned because she was among a group of Chinese women who also set the 1500-meter world record, the top six 3000-meter performances of all time, and the 5000-meter world record, all over the course of five days at the Chinese National Games.


Earlier this year a letter surfaced, allegedly written by Junxia and other Chinese runners, admitting to doping. In 2000 their infamous coach, Ma Junren, and a number of his athletes were booted from the Sydney Olympics for failing drug tests.


The Pace Was Unbelievable

A lead group of about six women passed halfway in 14:46; for reference, the American 5000 record is 14:42. Shortly after halfway, Ayana cut the noose and let loose, with her 14th of 25 laps accomplished in a wilting 66.67, leaving defending Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba, current world champion Vivian Cheruiyot, and everyone else gasping in her wake.


Both Cheruiyot—who got the silver in a personal best time—and Dibaba—who ran a personal best to nab bronze—were nearly half a lap behind when Ayana crossed the finish line. Ayana’s second 5K was run in 14:30. Again, for reference, the current Olympic record (not world record, which is 14:11) for 5000 meters is 14:40. Ayana averaged 4:43 per mile for 6.2 miles. Of course, the thing about a world record is that the pace has never been done before, thus, it’s hard to believe.

Ethiopia’s Drug Testing Is Almost Non-Existent

When officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency came to assess Ethiopia’s anti-doping facilities in December 2015, they gave it a rating of zero. For unexplained reasons, they gave Ethiopia until November 2016 to shape up, and allowed all Ethiopian athletes to compete in the Olympics. Coach Jama Aden, who trains many of Ethiopia’s star runners, was arrested in a raid at a training camp in Spain. Syringes of EPO, anabolic steroids, and other doping materials were allegedly found in his hotel room.


Some of Aden’s athletes, including 10,000-meter bronze winner Tirunesh Dibaba, were also staying at the hotel at the time. Ayana was not among those at the hotel, and is currently coached by her husband, Tadias Addis, but she has listed Aden as her coach in the past. Though she’ll certainly be tested after this world record run, it’s unclear if and when Ayana was tested out of competition. She has never failed a drug test, and responded just after the race that training and Jesus were her drugs of choice, and that otherwise she is “crystal clear.”

Ayana Crushed The Record And It Looked Effortless

Longtime observer of the sport Toni Reavis compared the performance to the housing market prior to the 2008 crash:

Training harder than everybody else is one thing, but destroying a world-class field and smashing a drugged-up world record without the semblance of effort or fatigue is a mortgage rate that won’t hold.


Former Olympic runner Craig Virgin commented on Reavis’s post to concur:

The most amazing and unbelievable part of her race was the apparent lack of any sign of physical strain whatsoever in her face, neck, shoulders, etc…. I was looking for some sign of growing fatigue…. but there was NOTHING! Then, she recovered like it was simply a mild interval effort just moments after the race. Check out what Molly Huddle looked like physically in her 2nd half and especially after her finish for a clear contrast and comparison… and you will realize what I am talking about. I know that winning… and getting an Olympic Gold medal & new WR… would surely be a wonderful elixir for most all of us and give us all greatly enhanced recuperative powers….. but it just looked too good to be true…


Plenty of well-respected names—The Sports Gene author David Epstein, coach and author Steve Magness, sport scientist Ross Tucker, Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden—joined in the doubting.

Notably, all of the evidence here is circumstantial, by association, based on gut feelings. Suspicions of Ayana personally are augmented by the backdrop of worldwide corruption and failures at the top levels of the IOC, the IAAF, and WADA, the banning of Russia’s entire team for doping, and a drumroll of allegations regarding Kenya, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Great Britain, and, let’s not forget, the US of A.


But there are good reasons to believe nothing untoward happened—the main one being a lack of evidence to the contrary. Here are some others.

Ayana’s Progression Is Reasonable

Ayana was, prior to this year, a 5000 meter specialist with a reasonable, if elite, progression, from 15:12 in 2011 to 14:12 in June 2016. Note that 14:12 is one second off the current world record. Moving up to 10,000 meters is not uncommon, and 29:17 is within reason for a 14:12 5K runner. She’s been competing at a consistently high level since 2011 which does not conform to one of the biggest doping red flags—an athlete appearing out of nowhere to post world leading times, or a mediocre athlete suddenly improving to that level.


The Magic Extended Far Beyond Ayana

Seven national records and 18 personal bests were achieved. That’s rare for any race, but downright fairy dust-sprinkled for a pacemaker-free championship race. Olympic races don’t allow official pacemakers, and they’re all about the first three places, so they rarely result in even a quick time, much less a world record. Usually, Olympic 10,000s are sit-and-kick affairs, with a few stars loping along until a half-mile to go, when they turn on the jets and medal, 1-2-3.


But Kenya’s Alice Aprot Nawowuna announced this was going to be a different race right off the bat. Thanks to Aprot, the congregation of studs in the loaded field went through the mile in 4:46, which is quick. In fact, none of those records, including Ayana’s, would have been possible without Aprot’s aggressive running, as a de facto pacemaker. Had Aprot been Ethiopian, one might suspect she was playing the domestique for Ayana but, bearing in mind the ongoing rivalry between Kenya and Ethiopia, Aprot was clearly out for gold for herself by disrupting the usual sit-and-kick game plan. The weather was perfect—mid-60s, no wind—and the congregation as a whole decided to go with this rogue default pacer, and that right there is the magic. Aprot led through halfway, and, it should be noted, hung on for fourth place in the fifth fastest time ever, 29:53. Tough, tough woman, that Aprot.

It’s difficult to predict when this sort of thing—insanely fit athletes deciding at the same time to get in a line, put their heads down and go for it—is going to happen, but it sure did in Rio. So how far down does one call foul? Just before American Molly Huddle? The first six women, including Molly Huddle, ran personal bests. Are all those women doping? Where does reality start then? Ayana’s world record was totally dependent on the fact that Alice Aprot Nawowuna and five other women kept her company at least halfway.


Ayana Didn’t Best The World Record By As Much As You May Think

Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe was one of the many who expressed doubts, saying, “I’m not sure that I can understand that. 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 as Ross Tucker pointed out, Radcliffe’s marathon world record, set in 2003, broke her own previous record by 1.4 percent, and her 2:15 is still 2.3 percent ahead of the second fastest marathoner ever, while Ayana’s 29:17 only improved the 10,000 meter record by 0.8 percent. The only thing Radcliffe proved is that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.


It is a shame track fans can’t simply appreciate such a stellar race, and Ayana’s fantastic performance as a declaration of a new plane of achievement in women’s athletics. But it’s not vanilla ice cream. Track fans are now forced to examine their attitudes toward doping, to recognize what’s important to them about the sport, and formulate their own guidelines for trust and suspicion. Track fans have had to evolve with the sport.


It was an incredible race—the cast of characters deserves to be acknowledged in full:

Rank BibCountry Athlete Result
1 641 ETH
2 946 KEN
CHERUIYOT Vivian Jepkemoi
3 645 ETH
DIBABA Tirunesh
4 953 KEN
NAWOWUNA Alice Aprot
5 956 KEN
6 1349 USA
7 1257 TUR
CAN Yasemin
8 642 ETH
BURKA Gelete
9 1068 NOR
GROVDAL Karoline Bjerkeli
10 344 AUS
11 1350 USA
12 1227 SWE
13 371 BDI
14 1036 NED
15 717 GBR
PAVEY Joanne
16 694 GBR
17 801 GRE
18 922 JPN
19 962 KGZ
20 919 JPN
21 1169 RSA
SCOTT Dominique
22 501 CAN
WODAK Natasha
23 1267 UAE
24 1387 UZB
25 482 CAN
26 1134 POR
ROCHA Carla Salome
27 1176 RWA
28 1044 NED
29 622 ESP
GEBRE Trihas
30 866 ITA
INGLESE Veronica
31 418 BRA
DE CARVALHO Tatiele Roberta
32 1008 MEX
33 1346 USA
HALL Marielle
34 720 GBR
35 1011 MEX
ROMERO Marisol
DNF 1269 UGA
Did not finish
DNF 1393 UZB
Did not finish

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