Ethiopia's Ayana Sets World Record to Open Olympic Track Program

Ayana is poised to become the next dominating long-distance runner

What track and field really needed was a Usain Bolt-like jolt to steer the conversation away from the endless string of crime, punishment and doping that nearly sank the sport over the past year.

What it got was a 10,000-meter world record from an Ethiopian who considers it her second-favorite distance, and a race that will go down as one of the best ever run at the Olympics.

While Bolt waits in the wings another day, Almaz Ayana opened the Olympic track meet Friday by circling the 25 laps in 29 minutes, 17.45 seconds to shatter a 23-year-old record by more than 14 seconds.

"This was not my plan," Ayana said.

How impressive was this race?

The 24-year-old Ayana, who had limited experience running 10Ks on tracks and is really considered a 5K specialist, won by more than 15 seconds. She was halfway through her victory lap while the largest pack in the field of 37 women was making its way across the finish line.

Spurred on by her pace, 18 women ran lifetime bests. Eight national records were set, including one by American Molly Huddle, who finished sixth. And silver medalist Vivian Cheruiyot, bronze medalist Tirunesh Dibaba and fourth-place finisher Alice Aprot Nawowuna recorded the third-, fourth- and fifth-fastest times in history, behind only the new record holder and the previous one, Wang Junxia of China.

The confluence of fast times on a cool, rain-dampened track — perfect running weather — could help blunt the inevitable questions about how someone with little experience at the distance from a country that has spent its share of time under the doping microscope could shatter a generation-old record that, itself, is under heavy scrutiny.

Wang's 1993 record broke the previous mark by nearly 42 seconds. Track's governing body, the IAAF, has been investigating claims that suggest Wang was part of a state-sponsored doping program in her country in the 1990s.

Confronted with the improbability of her record, Ayana's answer was simple.

"No. 1, I did my training, specifically in the 5 and 10," she said in comments translated to English. "My doping is Jesus. Otherwise, I'm crystal clear."

But no day in track and field would be complete without at least a bit of doping news.

A Bulgarian steeplechase runner got booted from the Olympics a day before her scheduled race. Also, Kenyan 800-meter runner Ferguson Rotich showed up and made it through his round, a day after a coach borrowed his credential to grab something to eat in the Athletes Village, only to be met by doping-control officers who wanted to test Rotich.

Rotich ended up being properly tested, but IOC spokesman Mark Adams said there were more questions to be asked.

"This isn't over," Adams said.

Nor is Ayana's Olympics. Next Friday, she'll run in her favored race, the 5,000 meters, where she is the reigning world champion.

"Not at all," she said when asked if the effort it took to break the 10K record could sap her strength for the 5.

She made it look easy. Ayana took the lead from a Kenyan pacesetter at the midway point, then started building an insurmountable advantage over two of the most-decorated veterans in the game.

Cheruiyot won world championships last year, and Dibaba was the two-time defending Olympic champion who skipped the 2015 season to have a baby.

"Running with Dibaba gave me the energy," said Ayana, who frequently referenced her 31-year-old countrywoman as her "sister" and her "ancestor."

Now, those greats will be looking up to her — and trying to catch her, too.

In other track and field results:

Ennis-Hill rallies to lead heptathlon

Over halfway home, and Britain's Jessica Ennis-Hill is where she wants to be — leading the heptathlon after four of seven events.

With a blistering 200 meters, the defending champion overtook surprise early leader Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium to regain the momentum going into the final day.

With a time of 23.49, Ennis-Hill pushed up her total to 4,057 points, the only woman to break the 4,000-mark. Thiam only set the 24th best time over the 200 meters and fell back to second with 3,985.

Akela Jones of Barbados was third with 3,964.

The heptathlon was supposed to be a battle between Ennis-Hill and Brianne Theisen-Eaton but the Canadian was disappointing throughout the day and was in sixth position with 3,871 points.

English trio advance

Britain's track and field Super Saturday is still on — barely.

Defending long jump champion Greg Rutherford was a jump away from elimination after two fouls, but he scraped through on his last attempt with a mark of 7.90 meters for 10th best position as only a dozen were allowed into Saturday's final.

Rutherford won the long jump in London, within that crazy hour of athletics when fellow-Britons Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters and Jessica Ennis-Hill the heptathlon for one of the greatest moments in British sporting history.

All three could do it again on Saturday.

Ennis-Hill is leading the heptathlon after four of seven events. And Farah is a strong favorite to extend his title.

American threesome poised for 400-meter showdown

LaShawn Merritt, Kirani James and Wayde van Niekerk all came through their track and field heats comfortably in the 400 meters, an event that's shaping up to be a titanic battle between those three.

Merritt, the 2008 Olympic champion, looked good in winning his heat in 45.28 seconds from lane eight.

The American didn't seem to mind the sparse crowd at Rio de Janeiro's Olympic Stadium, saying "45.2, not too much energy put out. Great track, nice atmosphere. I feel good."

Defending Olympic champion Kirani James ran the fastest time of the heats with 44.93. Van Niekerk, the South African who surprised those two to win the world championships last year, won heat two in 45.26 and was relieved. He said he was a little nervous before his Olympic debut.

Fraser finishes first in 100 meters

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica showed off a spectacular new hairdo during track and field 100 meters heats and ended up the only woman to beat 11 seconds.

The yellow-and-green-haired Fraser-Pryce will be trying to become the first woman to win the same individual Olympic athletics events at three Olympics in a row.

Two others weren't able to accomplish the feat Friday. Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia took bronze in the 10,000 meters and Valerie Adams of New Zealand finished with silver in the shot put.

In the outside lane late Friday, Fraser-Pryce crossed in 10.96 seconds, with Michelle-Lee Ahye of Trinidad and Tobago setting the second best time of 11.00. All the favorites advanced, with Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands, Elaine Thompson of Jamaica and Americans Tianna Bartoletta, English Gardner and Tori Bowie also winning their heats.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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