In the end, the much-touted 5,000m world record didn’t happen, but for 14 minutes and 15 seconds inside the Stade de France last night, Genzebe Dibaba – with a little help from fellow Ethiopian Almaz Ayana – served up a race of the most enthralling nature.
It was a race where the two leading athletes, a class above their rivals, faced not one but two competitors; they didn’t just have to overcome the challenge of each other on the track, but also outrun the phantom presence of world record holder Tirunesh Dibaba, whose splits were being rung out at regular intervals by the stadium announcer.
The crowd were always kept informed of the speed the athletes were moving at, how it compared to the world record pace and, as a result, they created a thunderous atmosphere inside the stadium, willing the athletes around on their quest for the record.
For most of the race, Dibaba and Ayana were ahead of the world record splits but in the end, the occasionally erratic pace may have been their downfall.
Pacemaker Tamara Tverdostup led the race with three steady opening laps of 70, 72 and 68, a pace Ayana soon realized was not quick enough. When she went to the lead on the fourth lap, she swiftly changed gears, throwing in a 64-second lap to get back on target pace.
Dibaba was the only one to go with her, and the pair then began sharing the pace-making duties, taking the lead for alternating laps.
On Friday, Ayana sounded in extremely confident form when speaking to the press – her only concern being that the hot weather may thwart a record attempt. “I’m ready to break the world record,” she said. “I will need a pace of about 67-68 seconds (per lap). My only fear is about the weather. If it is too warm it will be difficult.”
In the end, the temperature was warm, but not stifling, by the time they took to the track at 9:30pm. There was much talk beforehand about an agreement between the two to work together, but it was a rumour that Ayana poured cold water on at the press conference.
“It is not a championship and we are not running for our country,” she said. “It is an individual race and we are running for ourselves, so I will run with my own tactics.”
Dibaba, though, admitted afterwards that there had indeed been an agreement to share the pace-making duties. However, after the pair reached the 3,000m point on world record pace in 8:36.17, it was often left to Ayana to lead consecutive laps.
“The plan was to run 400m each but it was very difficult to be at that pace because Ayana was too fast for me,” said Dibaba afterwards. “I knew there was an agreement but I could not follow that pace.”
Ayana seemed frustrated afterwards at the lack of help from Dibaba. “I’m disappointed because the agreement was not kept,” she said. “I did more laps than my rival, especially after 2K. Next time I will run different.”
As Ayana passed the 4,000m mark in 11:28.33 – just up on Dibaba’s world record split of 11:28.44 – she looked a sitting duck at the front, never moving fast enough to drop Dibaba and allowing her Ethiopian rival to conserve energy running in her slipstream.
It was then that Dibaba’s mind turned from the record just to attaining victory on the night. “When it was clear there was no world record, I concentrated on the win,” she said.
With 400m remaining, Dibaba emerged from Ayana’s slipstream and unleashed an explosive kick. She quickly opened a 10-meter lead and for a brief period, it seemed the world record was back on. Dibaba’s final lap of 61.17 was not enough, though, to make up for time lost in the preceding laps, when the pace often lagged outside 70 seconds per lap.
Dibaba powered home to win in 14:15.41, a personal best and meet record, six seconds clear of Ayana in 14:21.97.
“I won, so I’m very happy with this competition,” said Dibaba, who added that her next race will be a 1500m at the Stockholm Diamond League on July 30. At the World Championships in Beijing, she will contest just the 5,000m.
Based on the evidence presented last night, she looks relatively unbeatable.