Rome’s historic 1960 Olympic stadium has witnessed a plethora of world records since it was remodelled 56 years ago to stage athletics. Almaz Ayana nearly added to that catalogue with a thrilling 5000m run at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in the Italian capital on Thursday night (2).
At the fifth IAAF Diamond League meeting of the season, and the first one to be staged in Europe, the Ethiopian produced the performance of this year’s series so far when she won in 14:12.59, little more than a second off the world record of 14:11.15.
Ayana’s face gave little away as she raised her arms in triumph while crossing the line, but the golden letters that flashed up on the digital timer were only ‘MR’, for meeting record.
It is going to take another supreme effort from the 24-year-old Ethiopian to set ‘WR’ flashing by bettering the mark set eight years ago in Oslo’s Bislett Stadium by compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba.
That said, this slight figure – but mighty runner – who at one time harboured ambitions over sturdy barriers and set a 3000m steeplechase world junior record back in 2010, must now be feeling increasingly confident of adding the Olympic 5000m title later this summer to the World Championships gold she won in Beijing last year.
Rabat attempt unravels
At the IAAF Diamond League in Rabat on 22 May, she had her first serious tilt at a world record this year and appeared on target to improve Dibaba’s time until the wind rose. She eventually had to settle for 14:16.31, which was still the fifth-fastest time ever recorded.
In Morocco, Ayana was out on her own by 2000m and led the field through 3000m in 8:32.33, compared to Dibaba’s 8:38.83 in what many will remember was an erratically paced race.
At that point, the world record was still on for Ayana. She hit the 4000m split in 11:26.17 and was more than two seconds faster than Dibaba with a kilometre to go, but had started to tire towards the end of the fourth kilometre.
It was the penultimate lap that ended Ayana’s world record ambition in Rabat, the strain showing on her face as she negotiated it in 69.1. She sprinted home over the last 200m in 32.7, exactly the same time as Dibaba at the close of her race.
In Rome, Ayana reached 3000m in 8:30.43. With two laps left, she clocked 11:58.00, and at the bell 13:06.5: two final laps of 68.5 and 66.1.
It was a measure of Ayana’s supremacy in Rome that Kenya’s Commonwealth champion and 2013 world silver medallist Mercy Cherono registered a personal best of 14:33.95 and was still almost the length of the straight adrift.
However, it still wasn’t quite enough for Ayana to establish her first world record in the senior ranks.
Contrast that to the 2008 run by Dibaba at Oslo. One of her two sisters in the race, the older sibling Ejegayehu Dibaba, took the field through 3000m in 8:38.83, which was significantly slower than planned.
Dibaba went through 4000m in 11:28.44, five seconds slower than Ayana in Rome, but she was accelerating to a faster finishing speed.
Her last three laps were 67.7, 65.9, 64.2, and her final 200m was completed in 32.7.
“The early part of the race was pretty good,” said the new world record-holder eight years ago. “But at 3000m we were a little behind so then I had to catch up on the pace. I could have run faster if the pacing was a little better.”
Dibaba the target, and rival
Ejegayehu Dibaba went on to finish third on that night in the Bislett Stadium, which partially explains the slower early pace as she had race ambitions of her own rather than just merely setting the pace for her younger sister. But it was the youngest of the three Dibaba sisters and seventh-place finisher, Genzebe, then only 17, who now seems the only runner realistically capable of frustrating Ayana’s Olympic ambitions.
Dibaba seems set on the metric mile in Rio, having bettered last summer the world 1500m record many thought for so long to be unapproachable, and having followed up with the world title in Beijing.
To underline her ambition, she took almost four seconds off Doina Melinte’s 26-year-old world indoor mile record in Stockholm five months ago, clocking 4:13.31.
Despite a toe injury which ruled her out of running over 5000m in Eugene last weekend, Dibaba still has attempts on the mile and 1500m world records planned for the forthcoming IAAF Diamond League meetings in Oslo and Stockholm later this month.
But Dibaba’s coach Jama Aden made it clear in Stockholm that the 5000m – in which his charge took only bronze in Bejiing last year, behind Ayana and fellow Ethiopian Senbere Teferi – remained a strong option for Rio.
Ayana has yet to declare when she will next have a record attempt at the 5000m but another fast time or even depriving the Dibaba family of one of their prized accolades would certainly be a confidence boost ahead of the Olympics.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF