2016 Olympic Women’s 5,000 Preview: Almaz Ayana Looks to Become the Second Woman to Complete the Distance Double; Will the World Record Fall Too?

by LetsRun.com
August 15, 2016

It’s easy to forget after her ridiculous 29:17 10,000 world record on track and field’s opening day at these 2016 Olympics, but entering the Games, Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana was actually a bigger favorite in the women’s 5,000 meters. After that run, the odds now stand at 1/33 in Ayana’s favor — meaning that you’d have to bet $33 just to win $1. Since the women’s 5,000 was added to the Games in 1996, only one woman has completed the 5k/10k double — Tirunesh Dibaba. But considering that Ayana is the defending world champion, claiming the title in dominant fashion in Beijing last year, and has routinely threatened the world record over the past two years (she missed it by just over a second in Rome back in June), those odds are fair. It would be a massive upset if anyone were to defeat Ayana on Friday night.

Really, the more interesting bet is whether Ayana will claim a second world record. We were able to find odds on that, too. Take a second and guess what odds Betfair is offering.

20/21. That’s right. Ayana is even money to break the world record in Friday’s final. Now technically, “the field” is even money to break the world record, but essentially it is a bet on Ayana since “the field” contains Ayana. The most amazing thing is, those odds aren’t really that unfair. If the race goes fast from the gun, we fully expect Ayana to take down the record (14:11.15 by Dibaba in 2008). She closed her final 5k of the 10k in 14:30, so it’s not hard to imagine her running 20 seconds faster in an open 5k.

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We break down Ayana’s chances and take a look at the other medal contenders below.

Prelims: 8:30 a.m. ET Tuesday morning

Final: 8:40 p.m. ET Friday night

2015 Worlds Results
1. Almaz Ayana, Ethiopia 14:26.83
2. Senbere Teferi, Ethiopia 14:44.07
3. Genzebe Dibaba, Ethiopia 14:44.14
4. Viola Kibiwot, Kenya 14:46.16
5. Mercy Cherono, Kenya 15:01.36

2016’s Fastest performers (among women entered)
1. Almaz Ayana, Ethiopia 14:12.59
2. Hellen Obiri, Kenya 14:32.02
3. Mercy Cherono, Kenya 14:33.95
4. Senbere Teferi, Ethiopia 14:35.09
5. Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya 14:35.69

Should We Just Hand Ayana the Gold?

The answer to that question is “almost certainly.” The “almost” may be a small part of that answer, but it still exists. Remember last year in Beijing, everyone was ready to hand the 5,000 title to Genzebe Dibaba and Ayana responded by massacring the field in the final. The difference is, there’s no Ayana-type woman to challenge Ayana this time in Rio. Even as Dibaba was favored, Ayana still had the faster season’s best, running 14:14 in Shanghai last May. No one has come within 20 seconds of Ayana’s best time over 5,000 meters in 2016, and her average margin of victory is a staggering 14.47 seconds in five races this year.

10,000 silver medallist Vivian Cheruiyot ran 29:32 on Friday, which clearly shows that she is very fit. She’s an outstanding runner in her own right four world titles, three Olympic medals, #5 all-time at 5,000 (14:20) and #3 all-time at 10,000 (29:32). And even though Cheruiyot ran a brilliant 5,000 at the Kenyan Olympic Trials — 15:01 at 7,000 feet, the day after winning the 10k, crushing world #2 Hellen Obiri by 12 seconds — her Diamond League showings don’t suggest that she can hang with Ayana. Consider: she was only third at the Pre Classic in 14:35 (behind Obiri and Viola Kibiwot, who is not in Rio) and barely beat Mercy Cherono at the Birmingham Diamond League on June 5. Cheruiyot is clearly fitter than she was then, but at 32, the 10k may be her best distance now. Ayana, meanwhile is on a path to the becoming the greatest female distance runner of all time, and she crushed Cheruiyot over 10,000 meters last week. It’s hard to imagine that anything has changed since then, even if the distance is half as long.

Perhaps the only way that Ayana loses is if she allows the race to come down to a kick: Cherono has 4:01 1500 speed and Obiri ran 3:59 back in May (and 3:57 two years ago). Unfortunately for Cherono, Obiri and everyone else, there is no way to keep the race slow if Ayana wants to go fast. And considering she’s employed that tactic in every single race the past two years to amazing success, there’s zero chance that Ayana lets any of the kickers hang around in the final.

Assuming Ayana strings it out, that likely benefits Cheruiyot, who would be able to gap Obiri and Cherono as she did at the Kenyan Trials. Cheruiyot outkicked Cherono in Birmingham, but for a runner who is clearly aerobically fit right now, the best scenario is a hard race that allows her to utilize that fitness. No matter how the race plays out, the Kenyans will be favored to take second and third in some order, though. 2015 silver medallist Senbere Teferi has been the #2 Ethiopian this year, but she finished behind Kibiwot in Rabat and both Kibiwot and Cherono in Rome. The third Ethiopian, Ababel Yeshaneh,  was even further back — fifth in Rabat and ninth at Pre.

That’s it as far as serious medal contenders are concerned. Only two other women in the field have broken 14:50 this year: Kenyan-born Yasemin Can of Turkey and Eritrean-born Meraf Bahta of Sweden. Can was 7th in the 10,000, running 30:26, and has run 14:37 this year. She has an outside shot at a medal but hasn’t yet shown that she can run with the top Kenyans and Ethiopians.

How About the Americans?

While African-born runners still dominate the long-distance events at global championships, a few non-African-born athletes have been able to break through and earn medals in recent years: Emily Infeld in the women’s 10,000 last year, Galen Rupp in the men’s 10,000 in 2012. That sort of breakthrough has not yet been achieved in the women’s 5,000.

The last non-African-born woman to medal in the women’s 5,000 at Worlds or the Olympics was Spain’s Marta Dominguez back in 2003. But she was linked to performance-enhancing drugs on multiple occasions and is currently serving a three-year doping ban. To find the last non-African-born woman to medal who hasn’t served a doping ban, you have to go all the way back to 2000, when Romania’s Gabriela Szabo and Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan went 1-2 in the Olympics.

Non-African-born runners haven’t been particularly close in recent years, either. Here’s where the top-non-African-born athlete has finished in the last five global championships:

Year Athlete Place Gap to bronze
2015 Susan Kuijken (NED) 8th 23.86 secs
2013 Molly Huddle (USA) 6th 14.40 secs
2012 Jo Pavey (GBR) 7th 7.57 secs
2011 Lauren Fleshman (USA) 9th 12.31 secs
2009 Silvia Weissteiner (ITA) 7th 11.33 secs
Embed from Getty Images

Since no one on Team USA — Shelby HoulihanKim Conley and Abbey D’Agostino — was born in Africa, history says they don’t have a prayer at medalling on Friday. Making the final, however, is an attainable goal, and should be priority one for the Americans. Conley went out in the heats four years ago despite running a PR, but she did make the final at Worlds in 2013, finishing 12th. She’s a stronger runner than she was in Moscow, but her speed may not be as good as she was focusing on the 10,000 this year and will be running a marathon this fall. Still, improving on her place in 2013 is an attainable goal.

Houlihan was tops among these three at the U.S. Trials and unlike Conley, was preparing to focus on this event most of the year (though she was an 800/1500 runner until this year). She also has good closing speed (2:01 800 pb, 4:03 1500 pb) and has yet to have a bad race this year. Based on 2016 form, she’s the American with the best chance to make the final, though she is the only one of the three Team USA runners who has never competed in a global championship before.

It’s remarkable that D’Agostino is even here considering she was hurt after World Indoors and didn’t start running again on solid ground until a month before the Trials. But D’Agostino battled back and grinded out a fifth-place finish in Eugene, which was enough to get her to Rio after Molly Huddle and Emily Infeld elected to run only the 10k. D’Agostino had a rough go of it at Worlds last year, finishing 12th in her heat, but that came during a hot morning race in which D’Agostino was banged up. On paper, D’Agostino is the least likely of the three Americans to advance, but remember, she was 5th at World Indoors in the 3k back in March. Assuming she hasn’t had any further setbacks since the Trials, she’s definitely got a shot at the final.

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