Almaz Ayana in the 10,000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
In the eighth part of our 2016 end-of-year reviews, statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best long-distance performances of the year.
In men’s distance races, it’s not about who comes to major championships with the fastest results, but more about whether anyone can beat Mo Farah. This time, however, the Briton did have the best result heading into the major championships, having run a world-leading 12:59.29 in London in July.
In terms of quality at the top end, the 2016 season was relatively thin in this event. Only four runners ran faster than 13 minutes during the season and Farah’s London result stayed as the world-leading time until the end of the year. Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris and Dejen Gebremeskel had the next fastest times and while they made it to the final in Rio, they didn’t win a medal. Edris played a part in the final sprint, but was disqualified.
All three Kenyan representatives in this event at the Olympic Games went out in the heats, but there were two Kenyan-born athletes running for other countries. As usual, Farah had few problems in winning the race. It wasn’t a slow race, but the athlete who finished closest to him was a shock.
USA’s Paul Chelimo, running in his first major outdoor championships, took the silver medal in a big PB of 13:03.90 behind Farah’s 13:03.30. Chelimo arrived in Rio with a PB of 13:21.61, which he first bettered in the heats with 13:19.54. Hagos Gebrhiwet took the bronze medal for Ethiopia in 13:04.35, replicating his finish from the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.
The 10,000m is a similar story to the 5000m; fast PBs do not matter if you can’t beat Mo Farah in the final sprint.
The 33-year-old Briton competed once over this distance before Rio, posting a 26:53.71 win at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene in May. It lasted one month as the world-leading mark before Yigrem Demelash won the Ethiopian Olympic Trial race in Hengelo in 26:51.11 at the end of June.
At the Olympics it was clear long before the final lap that it would come down to another sprint finish. Kenya’s Paul Tanui was the only runner able to keep Farah on his toes until the final metres. Tanui, who had taken the bronze medal at the 2013 and 2015 IAAF World Championships, won the Kenyan Olympic Trials before Rio and clocked a season’s best of 27:05.64 for the silver medal behind Farah’s winning time of 27:05.17.
World leader Demelash fought hard for the bronze with fellow Ethiopian Tamirat Tola. The latter bagged the medal in 27:06.26, just 0.01 ahead of Demelash. USA’s Galen Rupp, who finished second in 2012, was dropped off the medal chase during the last lap and finished fifth in 27:08.92.
Men’s 3000m steeplechase
Conseslus Kipruto was in his own class in the steeplechase during the 2016 season. The 22-year-old, who earned successive silver medals at the 2013 and 2015 IAAF World Championships, won four straight IAAF Diamond League meetings from the start of the season, running world-leading marks each time.
The Kenyan started with an 8:05.13 victory in Doha, followed that with 8:02.77 in Rabat, 8:01.41 in Rome and an 8:00.12 personal best in Birmingham. He suffered his only loss of the season at the Olympic Trials in Eldoret in July, where 2008 Olympic champion Brimin Kipruto triumphed.
In Rio, though, Kipruto won in style in 8:03.28 with USA’s Evan Jager taking the silver medal in 8:04.01 in just his fifth season as a steeplechaser.
Following the disqualification of two-time Olympic champion Ezekiel Kemboi for a lane violation, Mahiedine Mekhissi of France took bronze in 8:11.52, his third consecutive Olympic medal and his fifth straight medal at a global championship. The 31-year-old also won his fourth European title in the summer in Amsterdam.
The biggest surprise in the Olympic final was 20-year-old Moroccan Soufiane Elbakkali, who finished fourth in a PB of 8:14.35 at his first major championships.
The hunt for the first sub-14:10 has been going on ever since Tirunesh Dibaba ran her 14:11.15 in Oslo in 2008. Last year Genzebe Dibaba and Almaz Ayana took turns, but in 2016 the record assault involved only world champion Ayana as Dibaba focused on the 1500m.
Ayana first went to work at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rabat in May. After finding herself in the lead after just 1500 metres, she ended up winning in 14:16.31, the fifth-fastest 5000m performance in history at that time.
At the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome 11 days later, Ayana attacked the record again. Despite running solo from 2000 metres onwards, she ended up with 14:12.59, the second-fastest time ever. Ayana’s winning margins in those races were 13 and 21 seconds respectively.
She closed out her IAAF Diamond League season in early September with another comfortable win, a 14:18.89 clocking in Brussels for the eighth-fastest performance of all time. But while there is little doubt that Ayana was the leading 5000m runner in 2016, she finished third at the Olympics.
In the Olympic 5000m final, Ayana – with confidence boosted by her 10,000m world record a week before – burst away from the rest of the field on the fifth lap and gradually built a lead of five seconds. But it proved to be too much too early.
While Ayana maintained decent 70-second laps, Vivian Cheruiyot was flying with laps of 65 and 66 seconds. Ayana’s substantial lead rapidly melted away and she went from having a five-second lead with three laps remaining to a 7.4-second deficit when Cheruiyot crossed the finish line. The Kenyan had covered her final 1000 metres in a mind-blowing 2:43.1.
Wang Junxia’s 10,000m world record of 29:31.78 had remained unchallenged for more than two decades. With splits of 15:05/14:26, Wang’s performance was far from a perfect race, but with the only top-level 10,000m races coming at major championships – where athletes run for places, not times – only four other women in history had managed to run faster than 30 minutes for 10,000m before this year.
In Rio, four women broke that barrier. And the winner, Almaz Ayana, shattered Wang’s record.
Compared to previous major championships, the biggest difference in Rio was that someone pushed the pace from the outset. Alice Aprot drew on her cross-country strength and tried to take the finishing sting out of her opponents, passing half way in 14:47.
Ayana, Vivian Cheruiyot and Tirunesh Dibaba were still in close contact. Ayana then took the lead and increased the pace with a 2:49 kilometre.
No one was able to stay with her and she crossed the finish line in 29:17.45 after covering the second half in 14:30. Cheruiyot finished 15 seconds in arrears, but missed Wang’s old world record by just one second.
In what proved to be the greatest 10,000m race in history, the top 13 finishers set PBs and the world all-time list got a thorough revision with Ayana, Cheruiyot, Dibaba and Aprot moving to first, third, fourth and fifth respectively.
Women’s 3000m steeplechase
When a 17-year-old Ruth Jebet ran 9:20.55 for fourth place at the 2014 IAAF Diamond League final, missing the world U20 record by a mere 0.18 seconds, her potential was obvious. Nevertheless, few people at the start of 2016 would have predicted that Jebet would become the fastest woman of all time at the distance.
She showed early promise in her first race of the year, breaking her own Asian record with 9:15.98 for second place behind world champion Hyvin Kiyeng at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai. That proved to be her last loss of 2016.
Two weeks later she held off Kiyeng by 0.04 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene to become just the second woman in history to run faster than nine minutes. She then added a 14-second win in Stockholm.
Jebet was so full of running in Rio that she won her heat by six seconds in 9:12.62. In the final she couldn’t hold back more than a couple of laps; after a 3:06 opening kilometre, Jebet added a 2:54 to blow away all opponents before finishing in 2:59 to set a PB of 8:59.75, missing the world record by less than a second.
In the battle for the other medals, Kiyeng had to dig deep to take silver ahead of Emma Coburn, who lowered the US record by three seconds to 9:07.63, moving to eighth on the world all-time list.
Just 12 days after the Olympic final, Jebet went for the world record at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris. Showing few signs of tiredness, Jebet didn’t just break the world record, she demolished it by six seconds to win in 8:52.78.
The top quartet of steeplechasers – Jebet, Kiyeng, Coburn and Beatrice Chepkoech – finished in that precise order in the four fastest races of the year: Eugene in May, Rio and Paris in August and the IAAF Diamond League final in September.
Mirko Jalava (men’s events) and A Lennart Julin (women’s events) for the IAAF