Africa had barely received the news of Almaz Ayana’s victory over the whole world in the 10 000m race at the Rio 2016 when the news of doping allegations arrived. Almaz Ayana, the Ethiopian queen of sport ran the 10 000m in world record time of 29 minutes, 17.45 seconds. She shaved off 14 seconds off the world record to emphatically take the Olympic gold medal. To ice the cake, Kenya’s Vivian Cherulyot claimed silver with a personal best of 29 minutes, 32.53 seconds while another Ethiopian, Tirunesh Dibaba came third. The previous world record was held by China’s Wang Junxia and had stood for 23 years. No one had come within 22 seconds of the record before Ayana and her second split of 14.30 would have broken the 5,000m record too.
After the race, the world was in a state of shock and naturally, social media started undermining the African high-flyer’s achievement claiming it was due to doping. Sweden’s Sarah Lahti who finished 12th in the race in national record time then aired her scepticism saying, “I don’t believe she is 100%. It appears to be too easy for her. One cannot spot any facial expressions, she just presses on, while the rest of us are fighting for our lives at the rear. There cannot be that much of a difference. I cannot say that she is not clean but there is little doubt.”
Former 5,000m champion Sonia O’Sullivan also said, “She’s (Almaz) broken a world record by 14 seconds. That’s a record many people have questioned for many years. It was set 23 years ago by the Chinese. How can you break the world record so easily like that and not look very tired after it? When world records are being beaten by the length of a straight, you have to question it a little bit.”
Almaz Ayana’s response was epic. She said, “Three basic things. I did my training, specifically for the 5,000 and 10,000. Number two, I praise the Lord. God has given me everything, every blessing. My doping is my training. My doping is Jesus. Otherwise, nothing. I am crystal clear,” through a translator.
The 10,000m record had for long been a subject of much debate. It was set at a time when China was dealing with a doping crisis and has largely been held with much scepticism. No one thought an Ethiopian woman would come in 2016 and smash it to bits like Ayana did. However, instead of celebrating, the world started speculating and beating down Ayana’s achievements. Wang reportedly admitted to being part of a Chinese state-sponsored doping regime. She was a part of a group of runners nicknamed Ma’s Army after their coach, Ma Junren and set the previous record in 1993. No one had come within 22 seconds of the record before the Ethiopian sensation made it look like a joke. Wang reportedly signed a letter back in 1995 with details of how Chinese doping worked. It stated, “For many years, Junren forced us to take a large dose of illegal drugs. It was true.”
The record had therefore been deemed beyond reach but that was before Ayana came along. The sickening bit about the accusations is that they directly attack her basing on the claim that she was 50 seconds off her personal best but 18 women in the field set personal bests and 8 national records. Why the double standards? One argument has been the fact that Ethiopia’s testing programme is not the best around and the country was even threatened with a ban by the IAAF, earlier in the year. Does this fully justify the European attacks on Ayana? The answer should be in the negative. Sports should not become a guilty until proven innocent affair. Ayana the rest of Africa should celebrate this victory with no disturbance. Only when she is proved to have been doping can the celebrations stop. For now, Almaz’s story shows that with hard work, great rewards follow. Athletes cannot be accused of doping simply using stopwatches and the fact that they coughed in a call room. That is simply not enough. Congratulations Almaz, the whole African continent celebrates this victory with you.