One down, two to go. With a tactical run that finished with a mad dash, Sifan Hassan has completed the first part of her golden hat-trick. A confident 5,000m race completed in 14 minutes 36.79 seconds has given her a first Olympic title. And as remarkable as it was, her celebrations were short and sweet.
Tilts at the 1,500 and 10,000 await, and given how blissful she seemed to make this, her second race in 12 hours after beginning the day with a heat win in the former, despite taking a tumble, the three-for might be on. For now, the Netherlands have their first athletics medal since 1992.
“I can’t believe it. I used all my energy this morning and I was kind of tired. I couldn’t believe what happened. It was terrible when I tripped,” Hassan said. “I felt terrible afterwards and I never thought I am going to be Olympic champion.
“It has been an amazing day. When I fell down and had to jump up I felt like I was using so much energy. I couldn’t believe the feelings in my legs. All the energy seemed to leave me.
“Before the race here I didn’t even care. I was so tired. Without coffee I would never be Olympic champion. I needed all the caffeine. I was so scared I wasn’t going to do it.”
Eyebrows were raised on Monday when Hassan confirmed she was going all on the trio of titles in her sights. She managed to win gold in both the 1500 and 10,000 at the World Championships in Doha, the first to do so in those events. But this was an altogether different challenge.
Hassan’s first final was played out in taxing conditions – Monday’s night session began in 28C heat and 80 percent humidity – and with it she may have wondered if she knew what she was getting into. Yes, actually, she did.
“For me it’s crucial to follow my heart,” said Hassan. The medals, she says, were not the real concern, but the challenge to excel at all three to keep her motivated and “enjoying this beautiful sport”.
Any doubts over her motivation were blown out of the water on Monday morning when the 28-year-old crashed to the ground with the best part of 400 of her 1500m heat to go. Somehow, she managed to get to her feet, make up the 50m gap to catch everyone up and win.
A statement, no doubt. But the extra exertion for that emergency sprint at the hottest part of the day was not in the script. And as she began this 5,000m final, boosted by the rainstorm that lowered temperatures, the question was whether she had enough in the tank to burn for her usual late bursts.
Her tactics were no different to usual: coasting at the back, a couple of adrift, in fact, perhaps to avoid a repeat of this morning’s fall. As the race progressed, she began her slow move into the pack.
With three laps to go, the usual breaks occurred, splitting the racers into three distinct sections. The front cluster consisted of two Kenyans (Hellen Obiri and Agnes Jebet Tirop), a trio of Ethiopians (Gudaf Tsegay, Ejgayehu Taye and Senbere Teferi) and one ambitious Dutch woman.
She entered the last 400m in fourth and, with the bell still ringing in her ears, kicked up a gear. Obiri, though, wasn’t having it, replicating the shift and putting the fear of god in Hassan. Somehow, another gear was reached, and a sizeable lead opened up into the penultimate bend.
Hassan had a few looks over her shoulder into the home straight, arching her neck off the bend to see how much or little she needed to finish the job. Relatively satisfied, she still went all out. A remarkable final lap was completed in 57.36. Obiri, fighting to the last, had to “settle” for silver – a repeat of her placing in Rio 2016. Tsegay, 24, won the race for bronze.
Tuesday is a day off in that she won’t be racing. But the recovery and fine-tuning ahead of Wednesday’s 1500 semi-final will keep her busy. That will be the toughest of the medals to bag given the challengers, which includes Great Britain’s Laura Muir.
It was Muir who in 2019 said there was “a cloud” over Hassan’s accomplishments in Doha. The intimation being her links with the shamed coach Alberto Salazar. Earlier that week, Salazar had been given a four-year ban by the US anti-doping agency (Wada) for doping violations warranted further scrutiny. He had mentored Hassan since 2016.
Hassan has rallied against the accusations, pleading innocence, telling anyone who would listen that she has been clean all her life. And it is hard not to regard the challenge she has set herself as one fuelled by hate, not just heart. Those in the long-distance community have not warmed to her because of those Salazar links. In turn, she has made little effort to change their minds.
Maybe this is her revenge? That after two years of sneers, she has decided to take as many of the things her peers covet most – Olympic gold – away from them. One middle, two long, thus sticking it to a large chunk of the distance-running community.
The irony is that by excelling like this, the cloud only gets darker and the rumours only get louder. Though Hassan will probably care even less.
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