Readers Roundtable: Was Ayana’s 10,000 WR a Feat or Fraud?

Alax AyanaAyanaThe Rio Olympic track and field events kicked off with an amazing day, most notably with the insanely aggressive running of Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana in the Women’s 10,000 meters. Almaz didn’t just demolish the incredibly competitive field, she bested Wang Junxia’s 23-year-old dope-enabled world record by 14 seconds! With so many high-profile distance races run tactically, seeing an athlete of Ayana’s caliber going for time and pulling so many other great athletes to epic performances including eight national records, was a sight to behold!

Even before the top runners crossed the finish line, Twitter was aflutter with doping allegations. Yet, looking at the results of the top six runners, every single one of them ran personal bests. The USA’s Molly Huddle ran a big PR and a nine-second American Record. Fifth place, Betsy Saina who is a Kenyan athlete, but has trained in the U.S. also ran a huge 10,000 personal best. Tirunesh Dibaba, who won gold in the 10,000 in Beijing and London, who took almost two years off of competing when pregnant and recovering from having her son, ran the fastest time she has ever run …. and she is fast.

Who is doping? Why do we think they’re doping? I personally do not know, but I’d love for us to lay out all the evidence both for and against the idea that this 10,000 was anything more than one for the ages. Because in this era of corruption and suspicion surrounding our sport, wouldn’t it be nice to have that?

After the jump, I’ll include some resources that I’ve collected. Please share others in the comments!

Ayana Doping

Toni Reavis is a great commentator on the sport and his assessment is pretty damning. It’s mostly based on his gut feelings and how Ayana looked during and after her race, but it’s definitely worth a read.

Irish running-great Sonia O’Sullivan has a similar take in this video.

Much more concerning are reports like this one that Ethiopia does no drug-enforcement, or worse:

Authorities busted Ethiopian middle-distance star and 1500 meter world record-holder, Genzebe Dibaba’s coach, Jama Aden with EPO and other banned substances as recently as June.

Only Jama Aden and a Moroccan coach were actually busted, but who else was in the hotel room at the time the authorities arrived? Tirunesh Dibaba, Genzebe’s sister and the Bronze medalist in Friday’s 10,000. And remember when I said Genzebe was a world record-holder? Guess who’s record she smashed? That’s right, one of Genzebe’s four world records came when she bested Wang Junxia’s twenty-two year old dirty indoor 3,000 meter best!

Ayana Not Doping

From Alan Webb on Twitter.
From Alan Webb on Twitter. Looking at Ayana’s splits alone makes them seem insane, but looking at them relative to her past times and to a similar comparison’s of Molly Huddle’s they seem far more credible.

According to Jack Daniel’s VDot schedule, a 29:17 10k is equivalent to a 14:13 5k. Almaz Ayana’s 5k PR: 14:12. Molly Huddle’s time of 30:13 equates to a 14:33 5k. Molly’s 5k PR: 14:42. So, if just looking at this performance alone, Huddle’s performance is arguably more incredible than Ayana’s.

While the overall times are faster, the results are in-line with pre-race predictions like this one and this one.

Neutral

I was kind of hoping Five-Thirty-Eight would have run some statistical analysis, but alas they did not. However, they did do a little neutral analysis worth taking a look at.

Please share more and do tell us what you think! I am personally on the fence. I want to believe, but it’s definitely not easy. 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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34 comments

  1. There are many reasons to be skeptical – not only of Ayana’s performance, but of all the top performances. Everything under your “Ayana doping” section is pretty damning to me. And I don’t think the argument that her 10k time is clean because it lines up with her other times is especially convincing. All the other times could also be doped!

    So I think some skepticism is warranted. However, I find the public piling-on of this athlete distasteful. As you note, there is also good reason to look skeptically at Huddle’s performance, but I didn’t see much on social media about that.

    1. I totally agree. And she could have doped up until she got on the world stage and benefitted greatly by the training effects for years after, without ever testing positive. But I do have to say that nothing so far implicates Ayana. Dibaba is more suspect with her connection to the busted coach and her known presence in the same room with EPO (which breaks my heart because I’ve always been a fan of hers)!

  2. It is really a dilemma and here’s more fuel for the fire on each side, I am still holding back judgement for as long as I can until we see the results of more athletes racing “all-out” on that particular track in distance events:

    positive:

    1. Ayana has only had one “on the books” 10K previously so we have no data on her, she really could be this incredibly genetically gifted, or intersex (unlikely but possible and would be fine with that)

    2. Her 5K times show she really can run this fast for real

    3. She apparently lives/trains at altitude and Rio is as sea level as you get, giving her the legal equal of EPO, maybe even better than some of the other elites who only occasionally use altitude training

    4. That track is made of very special material, state-of-the-art, even more advanced than London 2012 and Beijing 2015 so the harder the elites hit it, the more energy they are getting back, which could explain why everyone seem to have 1-2 seconds faster per lap and PR’ed

    5. She is very religious – not actually a positive in my book but it does mean she would be an incredible hypocrite to be doping

    negative

    1. Kenya (and Ethiopia) has completely failed “out of competition” testing for athletes, their lab lost accreditation just before the Olympics which barely made the press, unlike the Russians. This means that runners are back to 1980-1990 standards where they can just “get clean” a week or two before competition and simply pass the direct tests the IOC does

    2. There are so many Kenyan doping scandals and banned runners that I have lost count, it’s over 50 now

    3. We know nothing about her coach and their history (the coach is critical as they would be the enabler)

    4. She fits the pattern of dopers, where they come out of nowhere, scoop up awards and prize money (IOC gives something like $15,000 prize for gold) and then disappear. She may do the same thing for the 5K which is also running later this week, which means she would be taking home $30K which could be the motivation. The average income in Kenya is $1,300 per YEAR.

    We may not know until Tokyo 2020 or further what the real answer may be.

    1. Yes, I agree with all of this. Except on the religious point – I’m not convinced many doping athletes actually know they are doping, that they, in some cases, are kept completely ignorant of what their “vitamins and supplements” contain.

    2. With her limited 10K racing experience, I watched her like I did Galen Rupp during the Marathon Trials. Someone who is experienced racing shorter distances and basically tackles longer distances the same way. No one accused Galen Rupp of doping, but he also didn’t break any records either. Watching her, I just saw the expression of a mentally strong runner.

    3. A lot of great points for sure. There are definitely signs that she COULD be doping or doing something that she shouldn’t. I HATE that instead of celebrating her WR we have to question it but that is the times that we are living in.

      I hadn’t though about her coach, like you mentioned and that is a really good point. Comes out of nowhere with a coach we aren’t familiar with.

      1. Exactly how I feel, Barley. I wish we could take the record at face value, but those who have tested positive for banned substances have tainted our gut reactions.

  3. I am incredibly skeptical. I am basing this off on the fact that the record she absolutely smashed is a dirty one, and she looked unnaturally smooth for running splits that fast. I recognize the fact I have become very cynical when records are broken, and I wish it wasn’t that way. But with the rampant amount of doping that goes on, it’s hard not to be. I hope that for her sake she does not test positive and can instill some faith back into fans.

    1. It’s inline with everything Ayana has done in the past and even with well-informed predictions before the race. I read somewhere (how’s that for a good source? Haha) that Ayana’s 10k WR is significantly less of an outlier than Paula’s marathon WR, both absolutely (compared to all running performances) and relatively (compared to the athlete’s own). If true, how does that factor in?

      1. It gives more credence to my theory that Paula’s WR is dirty, ha! But all joking aside, that gives some padding to the thought that Ayana just had the stars align for her on race day to run a WR: a great training segment, thus a great peak, the right race, and was feeling great.

        1. Records are falling all over the place in Rio. Could it be the track surface? I think the idea that the track is short is far-fetched. How dumb would that be?! But something seems up, right?!

          And yeah, I’d say all this speculation is re-opening the case on Paula, too. Eek! That would be a sad day – to find out she was dirty!

  4. I will 100% admit I’m jaded by the whole thing, and not sure what to believe. But I have this bias that I cannot seem to shake. I immediately question runners like Ayana, but I get incredibly defensive when someone suggests an American or another of my favorite runners (regardless of country) is MAYBE doing something that they shouldn’t. I’d be wrong not to admit that I’m struggling with that right now. I am naive and want to believe our hometown heroes are clean, but is it fair that I question others but not think twice about our own. I need to work on that, because it isn’t fair. As you pointed out, and others- there are so many signs that could say Ayana did not cleanly break the record, but there are also things that could say she really is just an incredible athlete. I hope she is clean- I hope that those medals are real and the records are true. But at the same time, I will still question a bit because I am a data and facts person and don’t blindy follow or believe things.

    1. All the lines are blurry. I hate it. But I think so much of it is naiveté on our parts. We want to believe in this pure sports thing that just doesn’t exist even for “clean” athletes who, at the world level, all do every little thing they can to perform a little better. Many have the resources to push the boundaries, but *just* up to the limit (re thyroid meds), while others rely on coaches/state to “take care of it” and remain willfully ignorant (at best) of the rule violations imposed on them by their authorities. I think it not only clouds every great performance with suspicion, but makes us question the whole thing – why bother to get emotionally invested as a fan of the sport when it’s so corrupt, dirty, and rife with different levels of unfairness.

  5. Remember back 8 years as we sat glued to our TVs watching Michael Phelps crush world records by nearly 2%? It turned out that the cutting edge swimsuits they were using improved performance by about 2% explaining almost completely the record crushing we saw in Beijing. I think technology advances may be be a big part of the explanation here.

    But If I were a doping bookie, I’d put:
    20% odds that technology advances resulted in a substantial increase in performance on race day. Track material. Shoe weight.
    25% Something that resembles doping but is completely permitted by current WADA rules. These could be either cutting-edge substances or methods that aren’t regulated yet, or drugs banned in and out of competition taken below doping thresholds, or drugs taken with TUE, or
    10% odds on an atypical biological advantage. With sex regulation rules changed this year, it is possible that intersexed women compete with an advantage that the would have been required to medically correct.
    40% that someone is doping.
    5% Everyone just got faster.

      1. I’m down with that. I wish the track material was the smoking gun, but I haven’t read anything on the internet bragging about the track. Like, if it really was something special and new, you’d think DuPont, or Goodyear, or whatever company supplied the materials to make it would be bragging about supplying world class chemical engineering to the olympic stadium and making runners faster.

  6. I do wonder if women’s records are prone to falling more often or being outiers as women haven’t been competing as long as men. But then the 400 men’s record fell last night in an epic race. I want to believe these are all clean performances. If it turns out they are not, I’ll laugh and hope the sport just splits up like bodybuilding already.

  7. So I had this idea … So, with running, especially distance running, most of the fans also run themselves. They train and they know how hard one has to work to be successful. In other sports, the fans aren’t necessarily athletes themselves, beyond dabbling in school maybe. So, do you think that distance runners can get away with doping less than other athletes because their fans “know too much”? It’s harder for us to accept “great performances” at face value?

    1. I think running at that level is still mysterious to the common runner. The pro men are finishing races in less than half the time of the mean marathon finishing time in the US. For the average runner (which even the faster of us were are some point), the performance of the pros is magical, and mysterious, and incomprehensible. The poor depth in women’s running doubles these perceptions even among those of us who know what it takes to run fast.

      The answer I think is simply that it magic fairy dust.

      1. Yeah, I agree, but I still think world-class distance running performances are MORE knowable to its fans than other sports, even if still relatively magical 🙂

  8. I’m planting myself firmly in the “innocent until proven guilty” camp. I’m a marathoner (although FAAAAR from elite), and I know how much my own performances can vary, because of a million different variables. If everyone is doping, then track & field loses so much of it’s luster for me, so I’m choosing to celebrate WRs, ARs, and PRs until someone tells me otherwise.

  9. Stay tuned for part two of Ayana on Friday night with the 5K finals.

    Huddle decided not to run the 5K after the US Trials but Houllihan will be front and center for the USA (with the red hair 🙂 unfortunately even with a PR she won’t even be close to Ayana.

    Only the kenyan (Vivian) can get even remotely close to Ayana so the question remains if she is going to try to WR anyway, even if she is a hundred meters ahead at the end?

      1. If she somehow goes sub-14 people are going to be losing their minds, and rightly so.

        But even if she WR by just a second (14:10) it’s going to cause a lot of questions because remember, not only did she exhaust herself with the WR 10K time just 6 days ago, she also ran the 5K heats at an impressive pace just 3 days ago. Even other elites do not seem to have that kind of recovery.

        I really do not know what to think. It is PCOS? Is it other genetic gifts we have not seen before? I’d actually be fine with all that, just really curious to know how this superstar does it. However if it is doping, we may not find out for a decade since her husband is her coach and all her training is “in-house”.

        The olympic record is 14:40 and she already beat that with her second half of the 10K, so she is going to own it, I would be very surprised if she did not.

        Meanwhile I am rooting for Houlihan to set her own PR and go sub-15 (so she is at least not lapped) Watch for her in lane one with that wonderful hair. Sadly we won’t see Abbey.

          1. Turns out she is human after all. Almost a relief because I didn’t want to dislike her. I thought she would set the Olympic Record but turns out the Keynans stepped up because Ayana was wiped out from running the 10k and 5k heats too hard. There is also the weird possibility she let them win but I doubt it. Wish Houlihan had set a PR but it’s been a long week and hard to do that after heats. Fun race to watch though!