While their names have long been familiar to athletics fans, the roads that Usain Bolt and Almaz Ayana paved and travelled on the way to their 2016 World Athlete of the Year awards provided yet another inspiring example on how to reach the pinnacle of the sport, adding even more superlatives to their already extraordinary athletic resumes.
Bolt, for nearly a decade one of the sporting world’s most recognisable stars, received the award for a record sixth time after overcoming a mid-season injury scare to win a third successive Olympic triple, while Ayana, who redefined the limits of endurance when taking the Olympic 10,000m title, won her first.
Bolt – Legendary status confirmed
Bolt, now 30, has grown accustomed to the heightened expectations that shadow his every appearance. That’s perhaps why he wasn’t sounding any alarm bells after his season’s opener, a modest 10.05 100m victory at the Cayman Invitational on 14 May.
“I’m just glad I got out of that one injury-free,” Bolt said. “In a season-opener, you never know what to expect. I expected to be rusty. Once I get a few more races under my belt, by (Olympic) trials time I’ll be ready.”
He chiseled a few hundredths of a second from that performance six days later with a 9.98 win in Ostrava, his eighth victory at the meeting, but crossed the line shaking his head and later expressing disappointment with his start.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve got a couple of months to do it, so we’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s a very big year for me. This will be the year that I’ll really top off my legendary status.”
A three-week training break followed before his next appearance, again over 100m, at home in Kingston. There too he struggled with his start, but was still markedly faster, clocking 9.88.
“It wasn’t a perfect race but the key thing is that I actually won and that’s a good thing and I came out injury-free,” Bolt said.
With Rio still more than two months away, things appeared to be on track until a grade one hamstring tear sustained in the 100m semi-finals of the national championships, again in Kingston, threatened to derail his Olympic quest. The Jamaican federation gave him the better part of a month to prove his fitness to still be named to the Rio-bound squad.
That test come at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London on 22 July where he contested his first 200m of the season. He won in 19.89 to secure his Olympic berths, but his race raised as many questions about his form as it answered.
“I’m getting there, I’m not fully in shape and I need more work,” he said. “But over time I’ll be fine. I’ll just keep doing the work. The key thing is I came out here and won, but I’m always hungry for more.”
When he finally arrived in Rio, Bolt commanded centre stage. Indeed, of all the story lines emanating from the Games, none captured the imagination more than the Jamaican’s quest for a third triple gold medal performance. As he’s done so often in similar high pressure situations, Bolt dutifully fulfilled his task.
In the 100m he was as graceful as he was dominant, recovering from a sluggish start to win seemingly unchallenged in 9.81, 0.08 ahead of the runner-up.
“Somebody said I can become immortal,” he said after his victory. “Two more medals to go and I can sign off. Immortal.”
He was even more dominant in the 200m, long his favorite event, winning in 19.78, a massive 0.24 seconds ahead of Canadian Andre De Grasse.
Bolt capped his Rio stay by anchoring teammates Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade in the 4x100m relay to his ninth Olympic gold medal in 37.27, thus cementing his legendary status in what he had already confirmed will be his final Olympic appearance.
Both of his season’s bests came in the Rio 2016 finals, capping a campaign in which he was undefeated in 13 races, including heats.
Ayana – entering uncharted territory
While Bolt’s heroics seemed almost inevitable, those of Ayana, still a rising star in the distance ranks, were not.
After landing within three seconds of the 5000m world record last year and striking gold in the event at the World Championships, the conventional wisdom was that Ayana might finally eclipse compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba’s eight-year-old 14:11.15 world record. She did eventually shatter a world record, but not over the distance everyone expected.
Ayana showed strong form early, opening her season with a dominant 3000m victory at the IAAF Diamond League series opener in Doha, winning in 8:23.11 after a 65-second final lap.
“It was a very good race for me,” said Ayana, who won by more than three seconds and came up just 0.47 shy of the national record she set last year. “My mind is already on Rio.”
She also seemed preoccupied with fast times.
Sixteen days later, she dominated her first 5000m outing of the season, coming within five seconds of the world record with a 14:16.31 performance in Rabat, at the time the fifth fastest ever. Ten days later she came even closer at Rome’s Olympic Stadium where she clocked 14:12.59, the second fastest of all time and just 1.44 seconds shy of Dibaba’s record.
But it was her next outing, at the Ethiopian 10,000m Olympic Trials race in Hengelo, that caught many off guard, and which signalled her true Rio Olympic intentions.
Running in her debut over the distance, Ayana dominated the contest and cruised to a 30:07.00 victory, the eighth fastest performance of all time and the fastest debut in history. Among those she beat was Tirunesh Dibaba, the two-time Olympic champion in the event, who suffered her first career defeat over the distance. Suddenly, Ayana was the woman to beat in two events in Rio.
In Rio, Ayana managed to deliver the best possible kick-off to the athletics competition. In the 10,000m final which was held during the morning session of the opening day, she broke away from the pack just after half way and forged on to shatter the world record, clocking 29:17.45.
“I never thought that this would happen,” said Ayana, whose stunning performance eclipsed the 29:31.78 record set by China’s Wang Junxia in 1993, less than two years after Ayana was born. It was one of the oldest women’s records on the books.
“I’m so in awe.”
She again controlled much of the proceedings in the 5000m final one week later, but perhaps tiring from her titanic effort in the longer race, faded over the final lap and took the bronze. It was her only defeat in seven races this year.
She concluded her season in much the same way as she opened it: with a 5000m world record assault, this time in Brussels. She came up short, but her 14:18.89 performance was the eighth fastest ever.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF
2016 competitions of the World Athletes of the Year:
10.05 1 George Town 14 May
9.98 1 Ostrava 20 May
9.88 1 Kingston 11 Jun
10.15 1 (heats) Kingston (NC) 30 Jun
10.04 1 (semis) Kingston (NC) 1 Jul
10.07 1 (heats) Olympic Games 13 Aug
9.86 1 (semis) Olympic Games 14 Aug
9.81 1 Olympic Games 14 Aug
19.89 1 London 22 Jul
20.28 1 (heats) Olympic Games 16 Aug
19.78 1 (semis) Olympic Games 17 Aug
19.78 1 Olympic Games 18 Aug
37.27 1 Olympic Games 19 Aug
(Jamaica: Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Nickel Ashmeade, Usain Bolt)
8:23.11 1 Doha 6 May
14:16.31 1 Rabat 22 May
14:12.59 1 Roma 2 Jun
15:04.35 1 (heats) Olympic Games 16 Aug
14:33.59 3 Olympic Games 19 Aug
14:18.89 1 VD Brussels 9 Sep
30:07.00 1 Hengelo (Olympic Trials) 29 Jun
29:17.45 WR 1 Olympic Games 12 Aug
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