Thrills and spills in the middle- and long-distance events at Rio 2016

From Almaz Ayana’s stunning world record win in the women’s 10,000m to Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon victory on the final day, spectators at Rio 2016 were treated to some unbelievable action in the middle- and long-distance running events.

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On 12 August, Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana got the week of athletics competitions off to a blistering start in the women’s 10,000m. Finishing in 29:17.45, she beat the previous world record set by China’s Wang Junxia in Beijing in 1993 by over 14 seconds.

“I’ve been training specifically for the 10,000m,” Ayana said afterwards. “Today, with this temperature, the conditions were just perfect.”

Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot took silver with a national record 29:32.53 while Ethiopia’s two-time champion Tirunesh Dibaba returned from maternity leave to take bronze with a personal best.

Known for her impressive agility, Ayana has been nicknamed the “dragonfly” by her coach, who is also her husband. In Rio, the 2015 world champion over 5,000m pushed ahead at the 5km mark along with young Kenyan Alice Nawowuna, who eventually finished fourth. And the favourite just kept on going. Cheruiyot, who won two world titles in 2011, managed to stay within five seconds of the leader until the 7km mark. 

Despite also coming close to breaking the 5,000m world record in Rome in June, Ayana was keen to avoid obsessing over the mark set by Tirunesh Dibaba in 2008. Instead, her aim in Rio was to match Dibaba’s medal haul at the Beijing Games: “The record can wait a few weeks,” she added. “I’ve come here to win the 5,000m and 10,000m double.”

Farah flies to 10,000m gold

The next day, Great Britain’s Mo Farah retained his 10,000m crown. Finishing in 27:05.17, he beat Kenya’s Paul Tanui and Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola. “It’s just crazy,” he said. “It’s incredible to win medals for your country. That’s the reason I train and make so many sacrifices. I’m delighted to make history and make my country proud.”

Five-time world champion Farah won two Olympic titles in London and remains unbeaten in major competitions since the 2011 World Championships in Daegu (KOR). With his rivals failing to push the pace, the 33-year-old was able to recover from a fall on the tenth lap when he tangled with training partner Galen Rupp of the USA, who finished fifth.

And the gold set Farah on his way to another Olympic double, with the 5,000m taking place one week later. “I need to rest before the 5,000m,” he added. “The other guys really pushed me hard tonight. I’m a guy who likes to win medals rather than run fast. One day, maybe I’ll go out and get a world record, maybe even in the marathon. But one of the things that keeps me motivated is winning medals and titles.”

Sumgong strikes maiden marathon gold for Kenya

On 14 August, Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong won the women’s marathon after producing a clinical burst of speed with 6km to go. She finished ahead of Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa and Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba. 

Sumgong, who also won the 2016 London Marathon, finished in a time of 2:24:04 in baking heat. “It was very warm, but everybody had to get through it,” she explained. “I had to control my body and listen to it very carefully. I’m extremely grateful. It’s Kenya’s first title at Rio 2016. I’d planned to move out at 35km and my body was responding very well.”

Kirwa gave Bahrain a second medal of the Games and crossed the finish line nine seconds after Sumgong. Reigning world champion Dibaba finished 26 seconds behind. The bronze medallist, who was racing for the first time since finishing sixth in the London marathon in April, led a group of seven racers at 35km before breaking away with the other medallists.

Producing their fastest 5km split between 35 and 40km, the three frontrunners had the Rio Sambodrome in their sights when Dibaba started to fall back. At that point, Sumgong produced one final surge of pace to push ahead and win her historic gold.

Earlier, history was made when 30-year-old Estonian sisters Leila, Liina and Lily Luik became the first ever triplets to line up in an athletics event. Though they finished well off the pace and Liina was forced to withdraw, they were delighted with their showing.

Rudisha retains 800m title

On 15 August, Kenya’s David Rudisha retained his 800m title in 1:42.15. He finished ahead of Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi and American Clayton Murphy.

Rudisha, 27, also won gold in London 2012 when he improved upon his own world record with a time of 1:40.91. IAAF President Sebastian Coe, whose 1:41.73 world record stood for 16 years before being broken in 1997, labelled the exploit as “one of the greatest performances in Olympic history”, adding that “it takes some serious mental and physical strength to run like that in an Olympic final.”

Young Kenyan Alfred Kipketer, who eventually finished seventh, took the lead after 150m. Rudisha waited patiently ahead of France’s Pierre-Ambroise Bosse before surging ahead on the back straight.

“My plan was just to run like I normally do,” the two-time champion explained. “I said to the other Kenyans that I was going to lead the race but when I saw Kipketer shoot off like a rocket, I decided to stay behind him because I thought he was going too fast.”

“Then, I just maintained my rhythm and pushed in the last 300m, as I intended,” he continued. “There’s always lots of pressure when you’re defending an Olympic title and I’m happy to have held on to it. You have to sacrifice a lot to stay at the top.”

Makhloufi, who won 1500m gold in London, set a new national record with a strong finish. Murphy, meanwhile, produced a blistering late surge to pass the fading Bosse and take bronze for the United States.

Makhloufi was understandably pleased with his performance: “It was a quick race,” he said. “The Kenyans are experts in this race while it was my first 800m in a major competition. I ran well and I beat the Algerian record so I’m very happy. David Rudisha is the world record holder, I wanted to be behind him at the 200m mark.”

Kipyegon makes late charge to claim 1,500m gold 

On 16 August, Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon produced a devastating final lap to leave Ethiopian favourite Genzebe Dibaba and American Jennifer Simpson trailing in the women’s 1,500m final. Finishing in 4:08.92, the winner broke away with 250m remaining.

“I knew it would be a quick race,” she explained. “I really had to kick on in the last lap. I was well prepared for this race and I’m really proud to win for my country. It’s just fantastic. I’m so happy to have won my first Olympic medal. It was a good, tactical race.”

With two laps remaining, defending champion and world record holder Dibaba held the lead. She was still in control at the start of the final lap before Kipyegon produced her race-winning burst.

The younger sister of track great Tirunesh Dibaba, the silver medallist had to dig deep to hold on in the final metres as 2011 world champion Simpson finished strongly. “I picked up an injury last month and haven’t been able to train as much as usual,” Dibaba explained. “Faith was such a fierce competitor, I’m happy with my result.”

Simpson was delighted to win a first ever medal in the event for her country: “I love running in competitions like this,” she said. “I love the feeling of stress on the final lap. I was just one of a number of competitors who could’ve taken the bronze so I’m really happy.”

Cheruiyot gets her 5,000m title

On 19 August, Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot stunned Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana to win the women’s 5,000m gold. Finishing with an Olympic record 14:26.17, she saw off compatriot Hellen Obiri and favourite Ayana to finally get her hands on a gold medal at her fourth Games.

Sixteen years after competing at her first Olympics in Sydney, the four-time world champion and three-time Olympic medallist ended her long quest for gold after previously taking two silvers and a bronze.

Out in front on her own, Cheruiyot was cheered across the line as she beat the Olympic record. “I said to Hellen Obiri that we’d have to work as a team today,” the 32-year-old champion explained. “And it worked out perfectly because we helped each other. We knew that Almaz Ayana was really strong and we knew that she had the ability to run away with it like she did in the 10,000m.”

“After five laps, I sensed that she wasn’t totally comfortable and wasn’t running particularly well,” Cheruiyot continued. “I said to Hellen Obiri: ‘Let’s go for it, we can do this.’ I don’t really know what to say. I want to thank all Kenyans, my Olympic federation, my family and my coaches.”

Pre-race favourite Amaya, who was going for a 5,000m and 10,000m double, broke away at the 1,800m mark and was around five seconds clear until the final kilometre. The Ethiopian then dropped behind the two Kenyans in the final lap, scraping bronze to win a second medal in Rio.

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Centrowitz takes surprise 1,500m victory 

With the athletics events coming to a close on 20 August, the USA’s Matthew Centrowitz led from start to finish to win the men’s 1,500m title. His gold was the nation’s first win in the event since Mel Sheppard won in London in 1908.

Crossing the line in 3:50.00 – the slowest pace for a 1,500m final since Los Angeles 1932 – Centrowitz finished ahead of Algeria’s defending champion Taoufik Makhloufi and New Zealand’s Nicholas Willis, who won silver in Beijing in 2008. 

“There’s nothing quite like this feeling,” 26-year-old Centrowitz said afterwards. “It doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve won in my life. Doing my victory lap, I kept screaming to everyone I know: ‘Are you kidding me?’ After the first 800m when nobody went around me, we were in the later part of the race and I thought now I can’t let anyone around me.”

“It may have been one of the slowest races in history,” said Willis. “Out of the guys who usually set the tempo, nobody wanted to go for it. Maybe it’s because there were only two Kenyans in the race, normally there are three or four.”

The battle many expected between Kenya’s 2008 Olympic Champion Asbel Kiprop and 2012 winner Makhloufi never materialised and both men were left shocked by Centrowitz, who finished fourth in London in 2012 and won silver at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

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Farah goes the distance with double-double

On the same night, 10,000m champion Mo Farah cemented his status as a true great with the 5,000m gold. In winning both titles in two consecutive Olympics, he became the second man to achieve the ‘double-double’ after Finland’s Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976.

“I can’t believe it,” Farah said afterwards, “When Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele was winning all those medals I thought to myself that just one would be so good. Dreams can come true and I was determined to make them a reality for my kids. A lot of the time I’m not there with them and that’s why I wanted to achieve something like this to give them a reason for me being away.”

The four-time world champion, who won similar doubles at the world championships in 2013 and 2015, gave his all to round off his campaign in style. “When I got to the front, I wasn’t going to let them pass me,” he continued. “I hate losing, I’ve been like that since I was a child. It’s just me.”

After initially being disqualified, American Paul Chelimo was later reinstated to retain his silver medal. Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhiwet finished with bronze, having briefly gained one place during Chelimo’s temporary disqualification. Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris and Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed, who finished fourth and fifth respectively, were also disqualified, only for the appeals board to overturn Ahmed’s ruling to give him fourth place.

And this drama all resulted from a frantic final dash. Kenyan veteran Bernard Lagat, 41, was briefly propelled into third from sixth but his medal hopes only lasted a few minutes while the board reviewed videos of the race. They concluded that a push from Edris had caused Chelimo and Ahmed to step into the inside lane.

Farah, meanwhile, avoided the melee after surging ahead on the final lap and the 1,500m European record holder was too fast for the other competitors. “My legs were tired after the 10,000m,” Farah added. “These four medals are my most satisfying achievement.”

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Semenya shines in women’s 800m

Just before Farah’s 5,000m race, South Africa’s 2009 world champion Caster Semenya won the women’s 800m with a national-record 1:55.28. She finished ahead of Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Nyairera Wambui.

The 25-year-old South African let Niyonsaba lead the race up to the 600m mark before pulling ahead with a burst of pace. “It was a fantastic race and a very high standard,” Semenya explained. “The most important thing was to be patient. I’m just so happy to win the gold.”

And Niyonsaba echoed the champion: “I’m really very happy,” she said. “I did my best, even though I wanted the gold rather than silver. It’s an honour for me and my country to make history, I’m the first woman from my country to win silver.”

Kipchoge takes men’s marathon gold

Having won marathons in Berlin, Chicago, Rotterdam and twice in London in recent years, Eliud Kipchoge added an Olympic crown to his haul shortly before the Rio 2016 Closing Ceremony. In doing so, he became the second Kenyan man to win the event after Samuel Manjiru won in Beijing in 2008. Having dominated the race, he clocked a 2:08:44 to finish ahead of Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa and American Galen Rupp.

With runners beginning to drop off at the 30km mark, only Kipchoge, Rupp and Ethiopia’s Lilesa and Lemi Berhanu were in contention at 32km. Berhanu was the next to fade before Rupp dropped off at the 35km mark. Finally, Kipchoge produced one last burst to see off Lilesa. 

“It’s the greatest medal of my life,” the 31-year-old champion concluded. “My career has been fantastic. Getting the Olympic title was always something in the back of my mind.” And the victory provided Kipchoge with another memorable moment in a remarkable career, having earlier won multiple honours over 5,000m.

One week after finishing fifth in the 10,000m, Rupp, who is Mo Farah’s training partner, tried in vain to put an end to Africa’s dominance in the event. But he was full of praise for the champion: “Eliud is obviously the greatest marathon runner there is right now,” he said. “It’s not like he’s a one-hit wonder where he ran one great race. He’s done it over and over again.”