The women's 5000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
Almaz Ayana returned to the track four days after her 10,000m world record on Friday and whetted everyone’s appetite for the final on Fridaty, where there is speculation she may try to break the world record of 14:11.15, held by her compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba since 2008.
The first heat on Tuesday morning, in relatively hot conditions with the temperatures at around 21-22 degrees Celsius, saw Japan’s Miyuki Uehara go quickly into a big lead and dashed through the first kilometre in 2:59.96, a rather audacious pace for a runner with a PB of 15:21.40.
At one point Uehara’s lead had grown to 70 metres but then she started to slow and she went through 2000m in 6:07.56.
Initially, the two US runners Kim Conley and Shelby Houlihan made the running for the chasing pack which contained most of the 16 starters, while Great Britain’s Laura Whittle and Turkey’s European champion Yasmine Can also took turns at the front.
With six laps to go, Uehara’s lead had slimmed to 50 metres and from that point on there was a certain inevitability that her bid for glory was going to end well before the last couple of laps.
The Japanese runner was still in pole position as she passed 3000m in 9:18.75 but her lead was shrinking all the time. As she was slowing and the pack was starting to speed up, she was swallowed up by the chasing group with four-and-a-half laps to go.
Can led the field through 4000m in 12:24.25 and there was a five-woman group at the bell: Kenya’s 2012 world indoor 3000m champion Hellen Obiri and her compatriot Mercy Cherono, Can, the Netherlands’ Susan Kuijken and Australia’s Madeline Heiner Hills.
Off the final bend there was a sprint to determine bragging rights, won by Obiri in 15:19.38. She was followed home by Can and Obiri, with fourth going to Houlihan who came from back in eighth to get into get one of the top five automatic qualifying positions, the other going to Kuijken.
However, Heiner Hills progressed in sixth place as a fastest non-automatic qualifier, as did the courageous Uehara who finished seventh just over a second outside her personal best.
Ayana accelerates, race over
The second heat saw another Japanese runner push the early pace with Ayuko Suzuki taking the field through the first kilometre in 3:07.59, although somewhat slower than the first heat.
With eight laps to go, Great Britain’s Stephanie Twell took over at the front from Suzuki but just before the 2000m mark – passed 6:13.32 – the 10,000m winner Almaz Ayana moved up through the field and took off.
In the next half a lap, she put 30 metres between herself and the rest of the field and the gap just kept growing and growing.
Ayana kept on ticking off the laps at a tempo nobody else could match, or wanted to, passing 3000m and then 4000m in 9:06.62 and 12:06.86 before crossing the line in 15:04.35, finishing in a relaxed fashion more than 13 seconds clear of the best of the rest as the women behind her battled for the other four automatic qualifying spaces.
They went, in order, to: Ayana’s compatriot and world silver medallist Senbere Teferi, Olympic 10,000m silver medallist Vivian Cheruiyot from Kenya, Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal and Great Britain’s Eilish McColgan.
The only real surprise from the second heat was that 2008 world U20 1500m champion Twell wasn’t among the battle for the top five and the Briton finished eighth in 15:25.90, which was not quick enough to go through as a non-automatic qualifier.
In addition, there was bloody drama four-and-a-half laps from the end.
With the pack closely grouped together as they chased Ayana, New Zealand’s Nicky Hamblin and USA’s Abbey D’Agostino accidentally tripped over one another, the latter badly twisting her knee in the process.
Both ended up on the ground, with Hamblin sporting a big gash to her ankle, but they picked each other up and limped their way through the rest of the race, determined to finish and record a time rather than see DNF (did not finish) beside their names in the results.
The referees later sympathetically advanced the pair, along Austria’s Jennifer Wenth who was also impeded in the collision but not as seriously, advanced to the final.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF