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RIO DE JANEIRO — For most of the race, security had been trying to kick the group of Ethiopian coaches and fans out of Olympic Stadium’s front row, which is only for press photographers. But the pleas of the staff went unheard, overpowered by the roar of the 30 cheering Ethiopians. (To be fair, I probably wasn’t supposed to be sitting there either, but once inside the stadium, moving around was pretty easy.) It was the best view of the finish line at the women’s 10,000 meters final today, and none of us was going anywhere.
Almaz Ayana, an Ethiopian runner, came in at 29:17.45, utterly smashing the previous world record by 14 seconds. Ayana set out on a blistering pace — her 5K splits were 14:47.10 and 14:30.35 — and finished strong in a loaded field. Before today, no one had come within 22 seconds of Chinese runner Wang Junxia’s record, set in 1993. Earlier this year, it was reported that Wang signed a letter in 1995 in which she admitted to being part of a state-sanctioned doping program. The second-place figure had crept along slowly since 1993, a few seconds at a time.
Ayana is new to the 10k — she’s better-known for her work in the 5k — but set the fastest time in a debut race at the distance during Olympic trials in June. But track is a sport with a particular relationship to its records and their legitimacy. When a newcomer with an extraordinary record comes along at a time when so many athletes have succumbed to banned substances, the rumors, whether true or not, will inevitably begin to fly. Doping allegations against Ayana have begun cropping up all around social media, though there is no evidence that she has done anything wrong.
Ayana knew what was being said. After the race, she said, “My doping is my training and my doping is Jesus. Nothing otherwise — I am crystal clear.”
I asked Ross Tucker, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of the Free State in South Africa, about his impressions of the record. By email, he said: “Who knows. You can’t condemn an athlete as a doper based on a stopwatch alone, wouldn’t be fair. However, the context matters — we know that Ethiopia have a nonexistent testing programme, and that they warn athletes when testers are coming for samples.”
Tucker said that while Ayana broke the 10K record by a similar margin as other world records falling this summer, this is different because of the tainted nature of Wang’s previously untouchable mark.
Earlier this year, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) threatened to ban Ethiopia from international track competition because of substandard testing. The country suspended three runners in March of this year while investigating three others, with an undisclosed number being investigated separately by IAAF. It was required to test between 150 and 200 athletes by November — notably after the Olympics — and improve its testing facilities, which received a rating of “zero” from WADA.
Aside from Ayana’s record-setting time, the race saw three more of the five fastest women’s 10k times ever. Seven national records and 10 more personal bests were set. The collective performance of the field was enough to make Tucker joke that, well, the track might have been built a little short. I asked him about that as well: “As for a short track, it would be funny if true, but that was kind of tongue-in-cheek. I mean, if the lap was even 10m short, then that’s 250m over 10,000, and that’s 45 seconds. So yeah, a short lap could do it. I highly doubt it!”
After the race had ended, I looked to my right and sitting next to me the entire race had been Ethiopia’s Athletics Federation head, Alebachew Nigussie. I congratulated him on the record and asked him if he had thought Ayana would break the world record today. “I was expecting good results, very close to the record,” he told me. “I was confident she would win, and now she has done it in the best way.”
Then I asked him what he thought about the allegations of cheating that were already circulating. “No no no no no no,” he exclaimed. “This is not one incident. She was performing good in many competitions. There is no cheating — people should not expect it.”