Sifan Hassan on course for unprecedented treble after 5,000m win

Dutch athlete to run total of 61 and a quarter laps in 1,500m/5,000m/10,000m quest

By early afternoon here those of us assigned morning and evening athletics sessions start to feel weak and irritable and in desperate need of a lie-down. These are long days and short nights in Tokyo, and masked or otherwise the air sometimes burns just to breathe.

Whatever Sifan Hassan did between morning and evening sessions here on Monday clearly worked some wonders. Just before 10pm, the Dutch woman completed the first part of a possibly unprecedented distance running treble when she won the 5, 000m with her now trademark kick over the last lap, which she covered in about 58 seconds flat by my watch.

That's fast, though not quite as fast as the last lap Hassan had run less than 12 hours earlier to win her heat of the 1, 500m: that's because with just over a lap to run, Hassan fell over a runner who had tripped in front of her. She rolled around for a second then leaped to her feet to give chase, somehow still winning her heat in 4:05.17, covering the last 300m in 43.7. That's very fast.

Having already run a 5,000m heat last Friday, Hassan still has three races to run if she’s to achieve what no woman in Olympic history has even dared to attempt – the 1,500m/5,000m/10,000m treble. There’s still the 1,500m semi-final to come on Wednesday, then Friday’s final (if she makes it), before Saturday’s 10,000m final.


Crazy quest

That will make for 61 and a quarter laps in all of the Olympic Stadium, and anyone who doubted whether Hassan was up for this crazy quest got their answer in the way she recovered from her fall earlier in the day.

It was by most memory the most impressive Olympic track recovery since Lasse Viren fell in the final of the 10,000m at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the big difference then being the Finnish runner still had 13 laps to run. He recovered equally swiftly and won that race in an Olympic record, completing his first 5,000m/10,000m double in the process.

For the 28-year-old Hassan, born in Ethiopia and who first came to the Netherlands as a refugee in 2008 aged only 15, there is some precedent here as in 2019 she become the first woman to win a 1,500m/10,000 double at the World Championships in Doha. Truth is the 5,000m may well prove the easiest of the three: if she makes the 1,500m final she'll face Kenya's defending Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon, who ran 4:01.40, the fastest ever heat in this event in Olympic history, and which also saw 20-year-old Sarah Healy make her exit after finishing 11th in 4:09.78.

And in the 10,000m, Hassan will face Letesenbet Gidey from Ethiopia: in June, Hassan set a world record for the distance with her 29:06.82 at Hengelo, but lost the record two days later when Gidey ran 29:01.03 at the same stadium. That may well be where her treble quest becomes undone. By then she’ll have five of her six races in her legs, in this sapping heat and irritable humidity.

Still, Hassan says it’s not just the possible three gold medals that inspire her. “For me, it is crucial to follow my heart,” she said. “Doing that is far more important than gold medals. That keeps me motivated and it keeps me enjoying this beautiful sport.”

Incidentally, Hassan ran that briefly held 10,000m world record at the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadion, the original flying Dutchwoman, who was the first woman to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, in London 1948, also setting world records in seven events. Blankers-Koen didn’t race over 61 laps, however, winning the 100m, 200m, the then 80m hurdles before anchoring the Dutch team to the women’s 4x100m relay.

Precious few men have won more than two distance events at the Olympics. Emil Zatopek, the Czech locomotive, won gold at 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon in Helsinki in 1952. the legendary Finnish racer Pavel Nurmi, who made history at the Paris 1924 Games by winning five gold medals in four days, the 1500m, 5,000m, 3,000m team event and two cross-country events.

How exactly Hassan is going about this is still a bit of a mystery. In between her Doha double, news broke that her coach Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon project had received a four-year doping ban.

Tim Rowberry, a former assistant to Salazar, is officially listed as her coach, although everything about the reported intensity of her training suggests Salazar may still be playing some role. The more Hassan wins, the more that question of her actual coach will start to dig for a more accurate answer.


Her 5,000m was convincing, Hassan hitting the front for the first and only time down the backstretch to win in 14:36.79 while Hellen Obiri from Kenya (14:38.36) picked up her second successive silver medal, Gudaf Tsegay from Ethiopia finishing third in 14:38.87.

In the final before that there was a historic rewriting of the men's 3,000m steeplechase roll of honour at the Olympics, when Soufiane El Bakkali kicked off the front on the last lap to win a first ever title for Morocco, five years after finishing fourth in Rio.

That last time this title was not won by a Kenyan runner actually in the event was back at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, or before man had yet to walk on the moon: there, Kenya entered a single athlete in the men's 3,000m steeplechase, Benjamin Kogo, and he got knocked out in the heats.

Starting in 1968, and not including their boycotted years, 1976 and 1980, Kenyan athletes had won 11 successive titles in this event. The best they could manage in Tokyo 57 years on was a bronze for Benjamin Kigen, silver medal going to Lamecha Girma from Ethiopia.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics