Firstpost Masterclass: Sprinter's speed, aircraft's take-off, and mid-air jaunts, Anju Bobby George breaks down long-jump

What is long jump? What is an ideal take-off? What role does chin play in long jump? Former long-jumper and World Championships medallist Anju Bobby George explains all this and more in this Firstpost Masterclass

Shantanu Srivastava July 27, 2020 09:40:26 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Sprinter's speed, aircraft's take-off, and mid-air jaunts, Anju Bobby George breaks down long-jump

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

Anju Bobby George grew up playing multiple sports in Kerala's Cheeranchira village before, on an unforgettable day in Paris, she courted history.

On 30 August, 2003, Anju's jump of 6.70 metres in the French capital made her the first, and till date, the only Indian athlete to win a medal at the senior World Championships in athletics. Back then, the sporting infrastructure and awareness in the country were nowhere close to what it is today, and Anju became a classic case of succeeding despite the system and not because of it.

Bobby, Anju's husband and coach, introduced her to scientific training which, as she claims in this interview, was a mix of American and Russian methods. Chinks were ironed out in a short but fruitful stint with American long-jump star Mike Powell, and for a brief period in mid-noughties, Anju became a genuine medal contender at continental and world events. In a relatively short career, Anju medalled at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and the World Championships, making her a sporting legend in the country and undoubtedly its most well-known long-jumper.

In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Anju discusses the mechanics, techniques, and intricacies of the seemingly straightforward sport, besides, of course, reliving memories from that crazy Parisian day.

Tell us about your childhood, and how did long jump happen?

I grew up in Cheeranchira village in Kerala. It is a very calm and serene place and our house was close to paddy fields. We had a lot of kids in the house, and all of us used to do a lot of outdoor activities. We used to run around a lot, swim, climb trees. My parents wanted me to be the best in whatever I do, so they always encouraged me to take up sports despite the fact that no one in my family was a professional sportsperson ever.

As a kid, I participated in a number of events such as hurdles, heptathlon, high-jump, and so on. I think that's the way children should be initiated in sports. Till the time I was in Class 10, I was fairly small in size. I was really short and weighed around 39 kgs, but my athletic ability was quite good. After Class 10, I started growing like a giant, and I realised that with my body structure and long legs, perhaps I was best suited for the long jump. Normally, long kids do not have enough speed initially, but in my case, I always had good pace and flexibility, and I was a quick learner. Among all the various track events I played in, I figured that I was best at long jump, and that's how I decided to pursue it a lot seriously.

When I was around 18 or 19, I had a big injury on my take-off leg. My strength and reactions were gone, I was not able to walk properly, and that's when I started training with Bobby. He supported me in my rehab and training, and he told me that my running technique was not correct. I had to unlearn the way I ran and get used to the right technique. It was slow and steady growth and I gradually reached a decent level.

In 2003, you trained under world-record holder Mike Powell in California. Tell us something about that experience.

At the start of 2003, Bobby knew that staying in India and dreaming of becoming a world medallist is not possible. He was convinced that I needed to train outside the country, but the road was not easy. We had long fights with the sports ministry, and we had a hard time convincing them that I was worth investing in. We camped in Delhi for two months, ran pillar to post, and wasted a lot of time in paperwork. At last, we secured the necessary approvals and permissions and three months before the World Championships, we landed at California State University in Fullerton with great expectations to train with Mike Powell.

We were expecting some dream-like facilities there, but things were actually very basic there. The ground was barely 3-4 inches thick, and the long-jump pit was inclined a bit towards the right. There was not a single shade to save you from the sun. Imagine training at 1 pm and nowhere to hide from the scorching sun.

In terms of training techniques, how was the stint under Powell different from what you had been doing here in India?

I was always fortunate to have Bobby by my side, who relied on his science background and extensive research to devise a customised training routine for me. It was actually a mix of the American and Russian systems, so when I trained under Powell, I could grasp his methods and techniques fairly quickly. What I didn't have was a good running technique, which is what I wanted to learn from Powell because Americans are excellent at running, and it forms the key to long jump.

Firstpost Masterclass Sprinters speed aircrafts takeoff and midair jaunts Anju Bobby George breaks down longjump

Anju's stint with American star Mike Powell (in pic) helped her improve her running technique. File/Reuters

What I realised in the US was that we know a lot of things, but we still need our knowledge to be validated by someone who knows better. Back then, it was not easy to meet international trainers and experts, so whatever Bobby learned in his career, he implemented on me. We didn't exactly know whether those methods were good enough. Training with Powell removed those doubts.

One major change was that we used to train four days a week, unlike in India where we trained for five days. But those four sessions were really long. We used to jump at one place, then drive 50 miles to the gym, and then further 10 miles to another track for another training... so it was a full-day affair each day. It helped that Powell drove us around. He became a really dear friend, and just the feeling to train with a world record holder was great.

He helped me fine-tune my running. He introduced me to a number of new drills and techniques. The length of my run-up, before I met Powell, was 38 metres. He asked me to increase it to 41 metres. My running pattern was alright, but he felt I was missing a few paces in between. He also helped me the technical part of the long jump.

Another important thing he did was that he connected me to a number of athlete managers in the USA. I was World No 16 then, without any global medal and still new on the circuit, so for me to get a Grand Prix event was not possible. However, with the help of the people Powell introduced me to, I managed to get one Grand Prix competition, and from there, thanks to my performances, I went to a few more.

I came fourth in the first competition, bagged a silver in the next in Madrid, then took bronze in Sweden, and likewise, I participated in six competitions with world-class athletes. That gave me a lot of confidence. Travelling with such athletes and competing against them was something very new to me. In India, we would only dream of such opportunities, so yeah, it was great exposure.

You were seriously unwell leading into the World Championships. What went wrong and how did you eventually manage?

After the sixth competition in Berlin, with all the travel and strain of competing, I was completely worn out. I grew pale and started bloating with fatigue, and I could manage just 6.29 metres in my last event before the World Championship. I was so week that I got scared and told Bobby that I am going back to India instead of Paris for the World Championships. This was less than a month before the event. We saw a German doctor and he said I should not compete for the next six months. I desperately wanted to come home, but Bobby persuaded me to travel to Paris.

So the competition began, and after the first round, Bobby gave me a list of six names to be wary of. Then, on the morning of the final, he predicted something special was in the store and gave me three names that he believed will finish on the podium. I figured in that top-three list, and the funny thing is, his prediction turned out to be spot on. The two names in his list, apart from mine, were of Eunice Barber and Tatyana Kotova, and they won gold and silver respectively.

I entered the arena full of confidence and led the field after the initial two or three jumps. My fourth jump was an excellent one, but after clearing it at first, the officials raised a red flag, which means the jump did not register. It was a seven-metre jump, I was told, good enough to win the gold that day. But the officials said that I had fouled by two millimetres. I slipped to fourth place, but then, there was some more drama. Before me, Italy's defending champion Fiona May went for her turn and failed miserably. I could see her weeping and shouting, but didn't know what was the matter until I began my run. I noticed that my checkmark was missing from the side of the track, and the same had happened with the Italian. Someone had removed our checkmarks, but luckily for me, I had marked my spot far away from the track with some water. I had a very vague idea where my mark should be, and I began my run with a lot of doubts. Such things can throw you off your rhythm.

I just ran and jumped, and as expected, it turned out to be a very flat jump. My run-up and take-off were not ideal, and I thought I had blown my chances. Performing in the sixth and last jump is always so tough because of the intense pressure.

However, despite the fifth jump not being my best, it turned out to be a 6.70-metre effort, good enough to get me a bronze. I knew I was in the medal bracket, and I knew that no Indian before me had achieved what I had just managed.

Next day, we had a blast. The first thing I got in the morning was a letter from the President of India. It was such an honour. We went to a big restaurant close to the Eiffel Tower to celebrate where Mike Powell joined us. For next two days, our phone in the hotel never stopped ringing, and when we landed in India, well, I guess you know how Indians celebrate!

Broadly speaking, what are the basic attributes one needs to have to become a successful long-jumper?

I would say, speed, technique, and explosive power are the key. Long jumpers need the pace of a 100-metre runner. That is very important to propel you. Having said that, the running technique and pattern in long jump are quite different from a 100-metre dash. Long jumpers do need speed, but only in the last six strides of their run-up. Ours is a more controlled acceleration. We are not competing with the athlete in the next lane. We are not competing for speed. So the run-up has to be pacy and powerful but controlled at the same time. That's where the role of a coach comes in. The coach should be able to explain why he/she is asking the athlete to do a certain thing in a particular way.

When I look at a youngster's build or muscle pattern, I can gauge how they can jump and much can they improve. Then, you look at the length of the lower leg too.

However, more than anything else, what really matters is the ability. This involves your jumping ability, your reaction from the ground, and the ability to learn things fast. We need to learn the science behind what we are doing at the track, so a minimum IQ to understand those concepts is needed. Then, of course, you ought to have the fire within. That helps you stay focussed for long periods. You jump six times in a competition, and each round has to be intense. You should be able to withstand pressure for three hours or more.

You are standing at the top of your mark, ready to begin your approach for a jump. What are the critical mental and technical factors you must address before you begin your run?

The first thing you need to do is shut yourself from the outside noise. There can be a lot of people at the stadium, there can be far too many things going on, but you really have to shut your ears and mind to all those things and focus on your technique.

When I say technique, I mean everything. It is a very precise sport. We count each stride in our run. We need to take care of our head position, arms, pelvic, knee, toe. All these things should be in the right position for a perfect jump.

Of course, there is muscle memory, but since there are so many fine margins, you have to think of all these alignments and techniques before you start your run. Even the extent to which we lean forward while starting the approach is scientifically determined. You really need to focus hard, otherwise, you won't be able to execute your skills as desired. Each approach will be different, each competition is a new one, each stadium feels different. You need to be in control of your body.

Head is the heaviest part of the body, so you try to control its position through our chin. Each step in the approach is controlled, and if your strides are a bit off or your knees go higher than they should, that's it...gone.

How do you decide on the length of your approach run? You said your approach was measured to 41 metres, so how did you reach that number?

The distance depends on the speed of the particular jumper and his/her ability to control that speed over the course of the run. The body needs a minimum distance before it can take off for an optimum jump. The exact distance is determined once the body reaches maturity. Bigger bodies need a longer run-up. Compare it with an airplane running on a runway. The aircraft moves a certain distance at a certain speed before it can take off, and it is kind of same with the human body. Each stride has a purpose, and each stride has to be designed to help you have a perfect take-off. It is not like you are simply running and jumping. You need to take off from the board to attain a certain distance, and your run should facilitate that. You should get maximum velocity out of it.

Can you talk about your run-up? How and when did you look to accelerate?

My run-up was a little different because I used to walk three strides and then begin my run. It was a very controlled beginning and a gradual acceleration. I used to follow the formula of Baby B, Small B, and Big B. So, while running in Baby B stage, the ankle of my right foot, for example, will go just above the ankle ball of the left foot; in next stage, the right leg would go above the calf of the other leg, and in the next stage, the leg would go above the knee of the other leg. That's how I accelerated; the speed increased at each stage.

Also, in between the run, for two or three strides, I would not follow this formula. I would just take my natural strides without consuming too much energy, breathe in and breathe out, and then increase my pace with greater energy.

Please take me through your strides and your running technique. Did you always look to maximise your steps?

When you increase the angle of your strides, which means when you progress from Baby B to Small B, the length of your stride increases with each progression. But, we never use the maximum stride. The toe should be pointing upwards when you run, and you run on the ball of the foot – neither on toe, nor flat-footed. To make it clear, the ball of your foot is the bone right behind your big toe. The toe, remember, has to point completely upwards. Also, we are mindful of maintaining a 90-degree angle between the hip and knee and ankle. Any violation of these points means you are not going to have an active take-off. The purpose of the entire run, as I said, is to facilitate a good take off. We are not sprinters looking for speed, we are looking to take off like an airplane.

Can you talk about the body alignment and head position while running, considering head is the heaviest part of the body, and keeping it stable is important?

Yes, controlling the head position is very important. A stable head gives you balance. Your entire run can be controlled from your head position, and your head position can be controlled or determined by your chin. So, you can say that chin can control your entire body.

Next, your shoulders should be locked, because we are generating the power from shoulders, not from arms or anywhere else. Your pelvic region controls your speed and power. All your muscles should be in a pre-tensed state. You need to run with your glutes; not with the toe, not with the knees. That's very interesting because the glutes are nowhere near the ground. What happens is, our ankle and knees are locked. I mean, your knees will wheel, but they are locked in their position. The drive is coming from the glutes. If you look at the wheels of the car, you'll feel that the wheels are driving the car, but it is actually the axle that rotates. It is the same with glutes and feet.

You used to lean forward a bit at the start of your run and straighten somewhere in the middle of your run-up. Why did you do that?

You're right, I used to be in a slightly inclined position at the start and then straighten during the run. I used to say in jest that 41-metre is a long run if you run the entire distance looking straight, but if you look down and run and by the time you look up, you'll realise that you have covered half the distance already. On a serious note, the purpose of the entire run-up is to generate speed without expending too much energy, and this position helped me do that. It helped me accelerate gradually, and when I straightened and lifted my body up a bit, which I did almost just over the halfway mark, I could drive myself towards the take-off board with maximum power.

How did you know that you've crossed the halfway mark and now you have to straighten your body? Is it by feel that is developed over time, or are there any clues you rely on?

We rely on checkmarks, but they are placed in our blindspot. So technically, we are not 'looking' at them. It is just a blink. And, we should be able to know if the checkmarks have been shifted from their place...depending on whether they have been moved forward or back, we need to adjust our speed and stride length. So, a lot of things are happening out there, and you can't really look at the checkmarks, not even from the corner of your eye. If we look down, we'll end up rolling on the track. It is quite complicated.

Firstpost Masterclass Sprinters speed aircrafts takeoff and midair jaunts Anju Bobby George breaks down longjump

'From the outside, you may think that it is just running and jumping, but there is a lot of science involved.' File/Reuters

From the outside, you may think that it is just running and jumping, but there is a lot of science involved. I have seen a lot of coaches standing near the take-off board with a stopwatch, measuring the speed and of the long-jumpers. Well, we don't need to go full tilt on the runway. Only in the final four-six strides do we need to go full throttle. That should be the ideal tempo.

Let's talk about the penultimate step. A lot of coaches put great emphasis on it. Why exactly it is so important and what is the body alignment for a perfect penultimate step?

Yes, the penultimate step is an extremely important part of the long jump. What we are essentially doing there is positioning our body. We come running in a horizontal position, and to convert our speed into an active take-off, we need to create a certain angle. For that, the entire body ought to be aligned in a particular way so that we can shift this speed to power. While doing this and creating the angle, we must make sure that the centre of gravity of the body doesn't shift. In simple terms, we just pick our leg and position the knee for upward motion.

Your knee and the lower leg has to be under your centre of gravity, and your knee should not lead towards the front. Your pelvis should be in an onward thrust position, not dropping too much. Your chest should be in the upward direction, and the centre of gravity should be a little low. Imagine stretching a rubber-band fully and pausing for a moment just before releasing it. Our body should be in that state before we release it to take off and jump. It is like a slingshot before you release it. Every body part should be under your control at this stage.

Your landing in the penultimate step should be on the full foot. It should not be a drive; the landing of the penultimate step should lift you. If you look to drive at this stage, your last step will be an overstride.

You take your hips down a bit, but not too much because you are not looking to gain height. So you effectively just stamp your foot down, take your centre of gravity down, and taking the force from our core and shoulder, you just release yourself for the take-off step. Everything has to be controlled. Each step is pre-determined. Elite athletes train for that. We know precisely how much the hips need to go down and at what angle.

Your brain is really ticking at the penultimate step, telling numerous things about your alignment and positioning, and you need to adjust and factor everything so quickly. You have run 41 metres to place that foot precisely at that spot in a particular way with a particular tension and alignment. The entire process needs to be perfected with scientific training.

The next step is the take-off step, perhaps the most important part of the jump. Could you explain the mechanics of this step and what exactly are you looking to achieve here?

Well, that's our secret and I would not like that to reach our foreign competitors, but broadly speaking, your take-off determines the length of your jump. If your take-off goes wrong, your jump is gone. We are looking to create a vacuum on the board with the arch of your foot. That is done by your ankle and depends on how much force you are putting on the board. The laws of motion come here, the harder you hit the board, the further it will push you.

This step is neither completely on the balls of your foot nor an entirely flat-footed one. It is somewhere in between but feels more like a flat-footed step.

The angle of the foot, the position of the knee, pelvic, shoulders, and chin should be perfect. If the knee is pointing outside, you're gone; if the knee is too inside, that's again wrong. You need to look to achieve the 90-degree angle with your knees. Everything has to be in proper position.

Your head should be stable. If you look down, your body will go down. We are actually looking up; not even straight. Your chest and shoulders should be upright. That's where the role of chin comes in again. It controls the entire upper body.

Do shoes play a part in the long jump?

Yes, absolutely. Each athlete has a unique foot placement and shape. Some of our women athletes use triple jump spikes for long jump to put extra power, but for me, I was using a customised Nike footwear. I wore one pair of shoes only in one competition. I used to carry six-seven pairs of shoes for each competition.

Long jump spikes have an equal cushioning from front to back. Each shoe has eight spikes. The spikes at the toe are a bit elevated and that helps us maintain the right position.

We have spoken of approach, penultimate step, and take-off. Now let's talk about the flight. How do you drive yourself mid-air and what should be your body alignment be?

There are various mid-air techniques such as hang and hitch-kick. Hang technique means that after taking off, we are bending both the hands, feet, back and after making an arch, we extend our legs to maximise distance.

Hitch-kick is a cyclic action; it is an extension of hurdling motion. According to your speed or strength, you can determine your cycles. After your take off, the bending and stretching forms one cycle. Most men perform a two-and-a-half or three cyclic technique, while women generally use a one-and-a-half cycle.

Having said that, there is no definite study in the long jump that says one particular technique is the best, unlike, say, Fosbury Flop in high jump.

Most athletes from the Soviet bloc practice hang technique, while the Americans prefer hitch-kick. We Indians are all mixed up... Personally, I followed the hitch-kick style. While doing this, your chin should be pointing up. You are aiming to go straight, but if the head tilts even a little bit, or even if your finger turns sideways, it will slow you down and change your direction. That will ultimately cost you the distance. Your centre of gravity and flight path must not change. So your limbs are moving, but the body remains stable.

What is the role of your limbs and hips? How do they help you gain distance?

The role of arms is very important. The distance we cover in the air is not entirely determined by how much we extend our legs because we get all the power from our hands. We are jumping through the air, so we are holding the air inside. We breathe in, which expands the chest, and our hands perform a rowing motion. When we row a boat, water pushes the boat forward. By the same principle, we look to row back air and it pushes us forward.

Then comes the legs. Depending on how much you extend it from the hips – and not from the knees – you will gain distance.

Hips should always thrust forward. Right from take-off to landing, hips need to be in a forward-thrust position, and they need not be moved at all.

When we are mid-air, we can actually feel the distance we are covering because we can feel the speed. We look to maintain the running speed through our jump, but if something goes wrong, the speed drops, and we can actually feel that drop. Then, you need to put extra effort mid-air by extending your muscles to the maximum. I actually did that in my fifth jump at the 2003 World Championships. Had I not put that extra effort, I would have jumped between 6.40-6.50 metres instead of 6.70.

Then, once you reach an optimum height, you begin your descent. Again, your technique changes. So you see, there's a constant conversion going on, from one step to another and from one technique to another to go with each step. From the outside, it gets over in a flash, but we actually know and feel these steps as they happen.

Where should you be pointing your toes when you are mid-air? Do you look to cut resistance by pointing them forward?

No, we keep the toes pointing upwards, even though aerodynamically, you will cut more resistance when you point forward. Thing is, when we start the jump, we are looking to climb. It is a feel thing. Once we are in the air, we do not fiddle with the toes because if we look to straighten them after we have climbed to a certain height, we will end up dropping speed. Then, we can't keep focussing on the toe all the time. It should always in a pre-tense state, and for that, our Achilles tendon should be tight.

Before you begin your descent, you tend you bring your knees to your chest before extending them fully. Can you take me through that process?

The bend comes from the pelvic region, and the knees rise from the hip-level to your chest. Some women athletes keep their knees below their hips, which is wrong. You need to get in a bit of hurdling position to bring the knees closer to the chest. We aim to delay the landing by holding both the legs in that position.

Bringing knees to the chest is different from bringing chest to knees. If you do the latter, you will begin to dip and the body will go down. However, if you bring knees towards the chest, you are actually lifting the body. Then, you extend the legs fully, you extend your heels in front and the toes will automatically point towards the body. This is how the distance comes through.

If you point the toes down, or if the heels are loose, the landing will be early. The aim should be to delay the landing as much as possible and cover maximum distance.

How does one develop this mid-air awareness that helps you seamlessly perform one step after another?

It comes with practice. Each moment ought to be looked at closely and learned. When you attain training maturity, when your speed is at its peak, when you can call yourself an elite athlete, that's when you can control your body. Once you're able to do that, you develop that feel. After that, you are aware of each moment. You can control your acceleration, take-off, mid-air steps, everything.

Firstpost Masterclass Sprinters speed aircrafts takeoff and midair jaunts Anju Bobby George breaks down longjump

'When you attain training maturity, when your speed is at its peak, when you can call yourself an elite athlete, that's when you can control your body.' File/Reuters

We know that long-jumpers land on their heels and then on their bottom, but is there an ideal way to land?

We have different landings for different jumping techniques. If you look at Tianna Bartoletta, the 2005 world champion, she doesn't land at all. The ideal technique is to land heel first, and then take the heel up and allow your bottom to land.

The Achilles tendon should be extended till the time you land. Your position from the time you extend your legs mid-air to the time you land should remain the same. You need to hold the position until you land.

Breathing pattern plays an important role too, since it helps you keep your chest upright...

Yes, you are right. We develop breathing patterns for our run-up and when we take off, we look to inhale a lot of air. The breathing is completed only after we land. So the entire motion of take-off, jumping, extending and landing is done in one breath.

These breathing patterns are different from how we breathe normally. But when you train, you are not training your muscles alone. You are also training your neuro-muscular system. Gradually, you get used to it.

Did you visualise a lot, and how did visualisation help you?

Yes, I did. It is very important because you can correct some things simply with good visualisation. I used to visit the ground 3-4 days before the competition and visualise how things would go on the day of the event. I visualised both the best case as well as the worst-case scenarios, each step of the jump, and each part of my technique. That helped me remove any uncertainties or doubts.

Long jump uses almost all your body. You obviously need strong lower body as well as a very strong core. How did you go about your physical training?

Core stability and glutes strength are a must, so we need to work on them. In long jump, we need to think like a sprinter, jump like a high-jumper, and lift like a weightlifter. Runners usually do not need extensive gym work, but they need to lift heavy. High jumpers do not need the speed of sprinters. But, a long jumper needs all of that.

We need lean muscle, and there are a number of exercises and weight training that one can build it. We also need flexibility in Achilles tendon, otherwise there will be injuries. Most jumpers do not work for knee and ankle stability, which is wrong. Also, the training has to be specific. Long jump is all about front motion, which means we do not move sideways. So, you need to pick exercises accordingly. Your muscles should not be too loose nor too tight. We also complement our heavy weight training with plyometric exercises or short sprints. We avoid long-distance running since it reduces our jumping ability. We look to build and preserve our explosive power.

Any advice to young athletes?

I would say never shy away from working hard. There is scientific awareness and help available nowadays, so please make full use of the knowledge. Do not fall into the trap of unverified or dubious substances that claim to enhance your performance. Remember that an athlete's career is a short one, but you have a long life to live after you are done with sports, and these kind of substances can have a serious long-term impact on your life. So, train well and work hard.

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