Our end-of-year review series continues as statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best long-distance performances of the year.
It was a quiet year in the 5000m as the numbers of sub-13:00 races (one) and of sub-13:00 runners (three) were the lowest since 1994. Compare that to just five years ago when there were five races and 16 runners at that level.
One factor was that super-power Kenya had an off year. In 2012 there were 17 Kenyans with season’s bests of 13:10 or quicker, but in 2017 there were just two. The regression was further illustrated at the World Championships where two of the Kenyans failed to reach the final while their third representative ended up second to last in the final, way off the action.
But while Kenya was unable to dethrone perennial gold medallist Mo Farah in his last championship final, the Briton was surprisingly beaten in a dramatic race in which he was outsprinted by Ethiopian Muktar Edris.
Farah, however, managed to gain some redemption 12 days later in his last ever track race – the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich – which he won by a miniscule 0.04 from Edris.
As the 5000m moves into a post-Farah era, at the moment it looks as if the Ethiopians are best prepared to take charge. Not just because of Edris – the world champion at age 23 – but also because of Yomif Kejelcha and Selemon Barega who at 20 and 17 were fourth and fifth in London and third and fourth in the IAAF Diamond League final.
USA’s Paul Chelimo is also worth watching out for. The 27-year-old burst on to the international scene last year by taking the silver medal in Rio and he followed it up with bronze in London.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the 10,000m was regularly contested in prime time at big meetings – especially Oslo and Brussels – producing a string of world record instalments and exciting competitions. But in the past decade or so, top-class international 10,000m races have been few and far between outside of the championships.
This year, however, two IAAF World Challenge meetings – Hengelo and Ostrava – featured 10,000m races in prime time. Hengelo was the de facto Ethiopian trials for the World Championships with youngsters Abadi Hadis and Jemal Yimer running 27:08.26 and 27:09.08 respectively, while Ostrava was built around Mo Farah who commanded the second half to win in 27:12.09.
All three featured prominently in the 10,000m at the World Championships. In a race in which many runners were intent on trying to drag the sting out of Farah’s finishing kick by keeping the pace honest all the way, the 10,000m in London produced the best ever depth in a championship race with seven runners going sub-27:00.
Two years ago in Beijing it was just the Kenyans working hard, but in London the Ugandans, Eritreans and Ethiopians took turns to push and vary the pace. Three of the first nine kilometres were quicker than 2:40 (26:40 pace) and all the rest were sub-2:46.
Still, there was energy left for a blistering finish where Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei – despite having done much hard work up front – looked set to cause an upset.
In the end the old master – after a 2:29 last kilometre – had the extra edge necessary to win by a scant 0.43. But the brutal race took quite a lot out of Farah and that probably manifested itself one week later when he was outsprinted in the 5000m final.
Men’s 3000m steeplechase
The steeplechase has belonged to Kenya for almost as long as most athletics fans can remember. Any major medal not won by Kenya has been deemed almost as a failure. Two years ago in Beijing they even swept the top four positions.
On paper they fielded another formidable major championships team: four from the world all-time top 12 with 8:00.12 as the slowest PB of the quartet.
But in lead-up to London, the Kenyans didn’t dominate as much as they had done previously. Conseslus Kipruto won at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome, but only just from Morocco’s vastly improved Soufiane El Bakkali. Afterwards a foot injury started to hamper Kipruto who did not finish in Rabat where El Bakkali won in impressive fashion.
In Monaco, the final tune-up before London, USA’s Evan Jager won in a world-leading 8:01.29, more than six seconds ahead of No.2 Kenyan Jairus Birech. Kenya clearly needed Kipruto to return to top form in order for the east African nation to keep their golden championship streak alive.
At the World Championships, Kipruto was the only Kenyan to advance by place. After a slow opening pace in the final, Jager shifted gears just before halfway and began to whittle down the lead group. However, he couldn’t shake off all opponents and with one lap to go Jager was unable to muster a response to Kipruto and El Bakkali.
In the home straight Kipruto demonstrated full control even though the winning margin was just 0.37. A couple of weeks later the London outcome was confirmed when the top three finished in the same order at the IAAF Diamond League final.
But looking to the future, many will now be wondering whether 2017 was the beginning of a new steeplechasing era or if Kenya will reclaim their exceptional dominance.
It didn’t take long for Olympic silver medallist Hellen Obiri to set out her stall in 2017.
After setting Kenyan indoor 3000m records of 8:29.46 in Karlsruhe and 8:29.41 in Birmingham, her first international 5000m race of the outdoor season propelled her to a new level.
Obiri ran a 14:22.47 personal best to win at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai in May and followed it with a 14:18.37 national record and world leader in her next race in Rome in June.
She was undefeated at 5000m throughout the season and was in a class of her own at the IAAF World Championships in London, even with the formidable Almaz Ayana in the race. The defending champion was well beaten with Obiri grabbing the world title in 14:34.86 against the Ethiopian’s 14:40.35.
Obiri went on to win in Brussels, her sixth final of the season. She also clocked the fastest time in the world this year for 3000m, winning in Monaco in 8:23.14.
Sifan Hassan earned the bronze in London in 14:42.73, although she was only 13th fastest in the world in 2017, clocking a Dutch record of 14:41.24 in Eugene in May. Genzebe Dibaba was the second fastest this season with a 14:25.22 win in Eugene, but she did not start her heat in London at the IAAF World Championships.
None of the top athletes in the world ran more than one fast race at 10,000m during 2017.
A good illustration of this is the fact that the 18 fastest times in the world this year all belong to different athletes. But there was only one favourite at the IAAF World Championships in London: Olympic champion and world record-holder Almaz Ayana.
In London – and in what was her first race of the year after injury had forced her to postpone the start of her season – the 26-year-old Ethiopian was utterly dominant, winning by a massive 46 seconds from silver medallist Tirunesh Dibaba, 30:16.32 to 31:02.69.
Ethiopia’s 2015 world silver medallist Gelete Burka was the second fastest of the year in 30:40.87, but the Ethiopian did not run in London. Senbere Teferi, who placed second behind Burka at the Ethiopian Trials in Hengelo in 30:41.68, also did not feature in the 10,000m in London, opting for the 5000m instead.
Kenya’s 2015 world cross-country champion Agnes Tirop took the bronze medal in London in 31:03.50, chopping 52.5 seconds from her personal best. As was the case in Rio 12 months prior, compatriot Alice Nawowuna again missed out on a place on the podium, finishing fourth in 31:11.86.
Women’s 3000m steeplechase
Ruth Jebet’s Olympic triumph and world record last year made the Bahraini runner the undisputed No.1 athlete in this event heading into 2017.
But this summer didn’t quite go so well for the 21-year-old. She won just two races before the IAAF World Championships in London, placing third in Doha and Eugene and fourth in Paris. In the World Championships final she was clearly a long way from her 2016 form and finished fifth in 9:13.96.
Before the World Championships, 18-year-old Kenyan Celliphine Chespol had been the revelation of the season. She set a world U20 record of 9:05.70 in Doha, her first race of the season, and then won in Eugene in an African record of 8:58.78, another world U20 record. At the World Championships, however, she could not replicate these performances and finished sixth in 9:15.04.
The World Championships final was a surprising one. With favourites Jebet and Chespol dropped well before the sprint finish, USA’s Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs were left fighting against Kenya’s defending champion Hyvin Kiyeng in the battle for the medals. 27-year-old Coburn, the Olympic bronze medallist, was clearly fastest in the final 150 metres, winning in 9:02.58 to break the North American record and championship record. 24-year-old Frerichs, competing in her first IAAF World Championships, was second in a PB of 9:03.77 while Kiyeng was third in 9:04.03.
There was much drama during the race with several athletes falling down and one of the favourites, Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech, forgetting about one of the water jumps and having to run back to continue the race. The 26-year-old eventually finished fourth and was about six seconds shy of a medal; the end result may have been quite different had it not been for that mistake.
Mirko Jalava (women’s events) and A Lennart Julin (men’s events) for the IAAF