It was a more exciting day’s racing than she might have planned—a tumble in the morning, a gold medal 12 hours later—but Sifan Hassan just soaked up the drama at the Tokyo Olympic stadium.
The 28-year-old Dutchwoman is going for a unprecedented Olympic triple: gold medals in the 1500 meters, 5000m, and 10,000m, a feat that would mark her out as one of the greatest distance runners in the history of track and field competition.
On Monday morning, just before the final lap of her 1,500m heat, Hassan got caught up in a tangle of legs and fell to the ground. Without a moment’s hesitation, she set off in pursuit, kicking into gear on the back straightaway to overtake the field and grab the lead just before the finish line.
Technically, Hassan’s dream was still alive. But she left the field with a visible limp and it was far from clear that she would have enough time to recover for the day’s big test: the 5000m final.
But the Ethiopian-born racer ran what could be described as the perfect race—especially for someone whose main priority must be to conserve every smidgen of energy. She stuck stubbornly to the back of the main pack, hugging the inside as closely as possible through the first half of the race. As the pace began to pick up, she moved around the outside but as the bell rang out she was still in fifth place. Then came the kick and a tremendous surge past her rivals down the back straight. The Kenyan Hellen Obiri, reigning world champion, was the only one still fighting. Another kick, another gear, and Obiri was left trailing as Hassan, still pulling away, ran the last 400 meters in an incredible 57.36 seconds to finish in 14:36.79.
If it sounds that Hassan has something to prove in Tokyo, it’s because she clearly has. At the 2019 world championships in Doha, Hassan had just won the 1000m when news broke that her mentor and former coach Alberto Salazar had been handed a four-year ban for doping. She went on to win the 1500m with one of the fastest runs ever, demonstrating not just range but endurance, too.
After that meet, and suggestions from rivals that her victories were somehow tainted, Hassan admitted she had been fueled by anger. “I’ve been clean all my life,” she said. “I was so angry, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I ran all out. I wanted to show that hard work can beat everything.”
Paired up now with Tim Rowberry, Salazar’s former assistant at the disbanded Nike Oregon Project, Hassan has been getting faster and stronger. She set a 10,000m world record in the Dutch city of Hengelo last month, shocking her fellow athletes by returning to the track an hour later for a series of full-out sprints.
That was the first sign that she was planning something special for Tokyo: not just the 5000m-10,000m double everyone was half-expecting but the 1500m too, a much more audacious gamble.
But Salazar’s shadow refuses to release her. This week, when the spotlight should have been on Hassan, news came that the 62-year-old coach had been banned from the Olympics for life after an investigation into claims of sexual and emotional misconduct.
With three races to go in Tokyo, the 1500m semis and final and the 10,000m on Saturday night, Hassan will not allow herself to be distracted by distant news reports. If she can achieve this unique Olympic triple, she’ll be bigger than Salazar ever was.