Almaz Ayana turned in an unbelievable performance in Rio earlier today, in winning Olympic gold while smashing the women’s world 10,000 metres record. But was it Unbelievable – Good! Or Unbelievable – Bad? Given the suspicion – bolstered by arrests and the discovery of syringes in their hotel – surrounding the training camp of Jama Aden, who numbers Genzebe Dibaba among his trainees, when relative newcomer Ayana walzed away from Genzebe to win the world 5000 metres title last year, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. And now that Ayana, the latest Ethiopian marvel has taken apart Wang Junxia’s wholly suspect 10,000 metres record of 29.31.78, in only her second race at the distance, and by over 14 seconds, what are we to make of that?
Looking at it positively (which we have to, for the time being), we can say that women’s track distance running has finally come of age. For too long, 10,000 metres women, mostly Ethiopians, and particularly Tirunesh Dibaba have been doing just enough to win distance races. It was clear that if they (and others) really extended themselves, even a suspect world record could be threatened. It needed someone as brave and as incautious as Ayana to do it. She picked up from an already rapid first half of the race, and ran away from her rivals with a faster second half to win gold in a time of 29min 17.45sec thus smashing a superlative world record.
An even better proof of the benefits of fearless running is that, when provoked, Ayana’s three immediate pursuers all broke 30 minutes, and all set personal bests; including world champion Vivian Cheruiyot, second in 29.32.53, a Kenyan national record and just outside the previous world record; defending champion, Tirunesh herself, the most be-medalled long distance woman in history, third in a personal best 29.42.56; and spare a thought for young Alice Aprot Nawowuna of Kenya, who ran the fastest first half of a women’s 10,000 metres in history, and then saw Ayana speed away, but she hung in for fourth in, again a personal best, of 29.53.51. There were eight national records and almost half the field of 35 set personal bests.
On a personal note, since I am peddling my book on the mercurial Emil Zátopek, I should mention that when the Czech Locomotive won the 10,000 metres in London 1948, his Olympic record was 29.59.6; when he won in Helsinki, he improved to 29.17.0, just half a second faster than Ayana!*
However, back to business.
Fourteen years ago, I watched Paula Radcliffe win the European 10,000 metres with a solo run in a fraction outside 30mins, during a rainstorm which left the track awash. The run was worth at least 20 seconds faster, maybe even a second per lap, which would have brought it even closer to the then world record. Nine months later, Radcliffe ran a sensational 2hr 15min 25sec in the London Marathon, an example that needs to be remembered in this context, because that did for women’s marathoning what Ayana has done today for women’s 10,000 metres running.
Yet that record remains suspect, mostly beyond the shores of the UK. (I base this observation on the media philosophy that all ‘our’ athletes are clean while all ‘their’ athletes are doping – this is a national law that pertains everywhere in the world – even in Russia!). And I mention Russia, because I have a good friend who is a Russian marathon coach, who tells me that there is no way that Radcliffe’s world record is legitimate. And I think you might concede, in light of recent events, that she should know. And she is not alone. The legitimacy of Radcliffe’s run has been questioned by many people, including Britons, whose views I respect.
My defence of Radcliffe has always run along these lines – in 1992, she won the world junior cross, immediately ahead of one Wang Junxia who, one year later, fuelled by turtle blood, was setting world records, including the 10,000 metres which went unbeaten until today. Radcliffe in contrast did what all good juniors have to do, spend years transforming herself from a world junior champion to a world senior champion, by dint of the sort of intensive training that Zátopek used to do. Her marathon record was the by-product of that intensive training regime. But, of course even I don’t know for sure, which makes the current state of our sport so distressing. However…
Now, when the East Africans, benefiting from being born and nurtured at altitude (I presume I don’t have to spell the advantages out – you all know) began their rise to distance running prominence, part of the mantra was that these guys are sort of ‘noble savages,’ they don’t need to take drugs, a) because they are so good anyway, b) they don’t trust needles, c) they don’t even trust aspirin! This sort of philosophy is known in the trade as Trumpery (look up the definition in the Shorter Oxford or Webster’s – you won’t regret it).
Two Kenyan officials have already been recalled from Rio, one to explain why he has been caught on tape offering to warn of upcoming tests in exchange for moolah, the other actually tried to take a dope test on behalf of an unnamed athlete (the tester noticed his accreditation was not the same name as on the doping form – nobody ever said officials were smart!). There was already suspicion enough about Kenya, and if the state of affairs there had come to light earlier – and not been masked by the Russian farrago – chances are there would be no Kenyans in Rio either. As for Ethiopia, there is less drug testing there than in Kenya. I think you get the point.
Now, of course, I haven’t seen the smoking gun**, but I’ve been around this sport long enough to know an Unbelievable-Good from an Unbelievable-Bad. And here’s what former world record holder, and 27min 30sec 10,000 metres man, now a BBCTV commentator, Brendan Foster was unwise enough to say on air at the conclusion of Ayana’s record run, ‘That has restored faith in distance running”. Really?
Don’t write to me, write to Brendan!
** Ayana’s manager, Jos Hermens has written to say that she has had five out-of-competition and five in-competition tests this year.
PS When this site is upgraded, in the next couple of weeks, it will again be possible to post a response.
* QUICKSILVER, The Mercurial Emil Zátopek – www.cpibookdelivery.com/book/9780957033221/QUICKSILVER_The_Mercurial_Emil_Zatopek