Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana Obliterates 10,000 Meters Record

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Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana celebrates after smashing the world record in the women’s Olympic 10,000 meters race.

Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia obliterated a 23-year-old world record in the women’s 10,000 meters on Friday, punctuating the opening to the track and field competition at these Olympics with one of the most dominant wins ever in the event.

Ayana, 24, won her first Olympic gold with an untouchable performance of 29 minutes, 17.45 seconds, shattering the previous world best by more than 14 seconds. It was only the second-ever 10,000 meter race for Ayana, who said later she was nervous to step up to track’s longest distance and was merely racing to win rather than aiming for a new record.

With her win, Ayana unseated her fellow countrywoman, the two-time defending Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba, from the top of the podium, though Dibaba ran a personal best and finished third. Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya took silver with a national record, finishing 15 seconds behind Ayana. ​​In all, Friday’s 10,000 meters was one of the best races in history at the distance, with​eight national or area records set in the race, and 18 women in the field of 37 setting personal bests. Molly Huddle, the top American, finished sixth in 30:13.17, breaking an eight-year-old national record.

Conditions at the Olympic Stadium were perfect for a fast race, with temperatures in the mid-60s and a cool, light drizzle at the start of the race. Several of the other runners in the field said that they expected a fast race, but none were in world-record shape.

“There’s no way I could compete with that, there’s no way I could run with that,” said Emily Infeld of the U.S., the defending world championship bronze medalist, who finished 11th on Friday.

Swedish runner Sarah Lahti, who finished 12th in a national record 31:28.43, immediately cast doubt on the validity of Ayana’s result.

“I don’t believe she is 100%,” she told Swedish news outlet Expressen after the race. “It appears to be a little too easy for her. One cannot spot any facial expressions, she just presses on, while the rest of us are fighting for our lives at the rear. There cannot be that much of a difference. I cannot say that she is not clean, but there is little doubt.”

Asked in a news conference following the race if she was doping, Ayana denied the allegation, saying her world-record run came on the strength of training and prayer. “My doping is my training and my doping is Jesus,” she said through a translator. “Nothing otherwise, I am crystal clear.”

Few women in history have ever run as fast as Ayana. Until Friday, only five women had ever broken 30 minutes for 10,000 meters. The previous world record of 29 minutes, 31.78 seconds was set by China’s Wang Junxia in 1993, during a brief but prolific period of Chinese world records set during the early 1990s.

Going into Friday, Dibaba had the second-fastest time in history at the distance, more than 20 seconds slower than the Chinese world record. In Rio, she lowered her personal best by more than 12 seconds, a year after giving birth to her son, Nathan.

Huddle, the new American record holder, said she was happy with her time and a new personal best, but seemed resigned to finishing some way behind the leaders. After coming through the halfway mark in under 15 minutes, “I wasn’t dying but I knew I couldn’t go with them after that,” she said. “I was probably the sixth best person going in, and that’s where I finished.”

Ayana is also entered in the 5,000 meters here in Rio, the first heats for which begin on Tuesday. In June, she came within two seconds of Dibaba’s world record in the 5,000, running 14:12.59 in Rome.