Many people had just assumed that Almaz Ayana would waltz her way to a second gold medal in similarly majestic fashion to the way she won the 10,000m in world record time a week ago, but Vivian Cheruiyot had other ideas.
Motivated by the fact that, despite her many career accomplishments, she was still missing an Olympic gold medal, the diminutive Kenyan produced one of the biggest shocks of an Olympic athletics programme which had already seen a plethora of upsets.
Overhauling Ayana with 600 metres to go, after the Ethiopian had attempted to run away with the race in what has become familiar fashion over the past two seasons, the five-time world champion on both the track and cross country showed a turn of speed that few suspected she still had at the age of 32, and Cheruiyot crossed the line in an Olympic record of 14:26.17.
It was her fastest time at the distance since her halcyon year of 2011 when she won the 5000m, 10,000m and world cross-country titles.
"I'm so happy for me, my husband, my son, my parents," said Cheruiyot. "This might be the last Olympics for me.
"Almaz is such a great athlete, we thought she would win again. She got ahead but then I thought, 'She's not moving'. I was working and I went past her.
"It was my fourth Olympic Games and I had not had gold. Almaz can go fast for 400m, then slow it down. Today I said, 'I am going to follow her. I am not going to lose her'."
However, for more than four kilometres it did look like Ayana was going to add to her Olympic 10,000m gold medal and world 5000m title.
Just like in her heat, Miyuki Uehara dashed straight to the front from the gun, and Ayana tucked straight in behind her with the Japanese runner acting as a convenient pacemaker for Ethiopia’s prohibitive pre-race favourite.
Going through the first kilometre in 2:59.86 ended any speculation that, like in the 10,000m a week ago, Ayana might make a solo bid for a world record.
Ayana pushes the pace
The pace was still slow enough to allow all of the other 17 starters to still be running in mainly single file as they approached the eight laps to go infield display, but then Ayana decided that the pace was too sedate and took off, uncorking a 65.18 lap which fractured the field.
The second kilometre was reached in 6:00.36 and, with six laps to go, Ayana had opened up a 30-metre gap on the four-strong chasing group – the Kenyan trio of Cheruiyot, Hellen Obiri and Mercy Cherono as well as Turkey’s European champion Yasmine Can – which, in turn, had opened up a massive gap on the rest of the field.
The gap had developed to 40 metres with five laps to go, 3000m being reached in 8:47.80.
Can started to drop back with four laps to go, leaving just the three Kenyans to chase Ayana.
At the 4000m mark, reached in 11:39.75, Cherono started to struggle and drift back but her two compatriots continued to work together over the next lap and closed the gap gradually on their rival from the other end of the Rift Valley.
Ayana visibly started to tire from the start of the penultimate lap and Cheruiyot, clearly feeling fresh, started to move away from Obiri
Looking more weary than in any race since she was beaten over this distance at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris just over a year ago, Ayana was then passed by first Cheruiyot and then Obiri.
Cheruiyot quickly started to move away from the 2012 world indoor 3000m champion who has successfully moved up distance this year but Obiri didn’t throw in the towel until the final 50 metres, once she had ensured the silver medal was hers. Obiri crossed the line in a personal best of 14:29.77 while a disappointed Ayana crossed the line just under four seconds later, having enough of an advantage over Cherono to make sure she got the bronze despite suffering over the last lap.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF