Sifan Hassan chases athletics history with Tokyo Olympics treble attempt

Tokyo Olympics updates

In 2015, Sifan Hassan finished third in the World Athletics Championships 1,500-metre race. Instead of celebrating winning bronze in her first big international competition, the Dutch middle-distance runner was upset that she did not beat the world record holder, Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba. 

“I did a lot of mistakes”, she said, rubbing her forehead in frustration, after leaving the track.

Six years on, it is Hassan, 28, who seems unbeatable. Now a world record holder herself in the mile — and, for two days this summer, the 10,000-metre — she is embarking on an unprecedented distance running challenge: taking part in the 1,500-metre, 5,000-metre, and 10,000-metre in the Tokyo Olympics.

“Many people think I am crazy,” Hassan said this week.

It is the most ambitious Olympic treble since Emil Zatopek won gold in the 5000-metre, 10,000-metre and the marathon for Czechoslovakia at the 1952 Helsinki Games. 

Hassan is already off to a blazing start. On Monday, she tripped in the penultimate lap of her first heat of the 1,500-metre, scrambled to her feet and from last place sprinted past the rest of the field to qualify for the semi-final.

About 12 hours later, she ran the 5,000-metre final, winning gold after blowing her competitors away with a roughly 57-second closing lap.

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Her athletics rivals have come to expect that they will be beaten by Hassan, who arrived in the Netherlands as a 15-year old refugee from Ethiopia. “I knew she was going to destroy the field when it came to the final lap,” said Kenya’s Hellen Obiri, the defending 5,000-metre world champion.

Hassan’s transition from formidable competitor to world-beater coincided with a coaching switch after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she finished fifth in the 1,500-metre and was eliminated in the early heats of the 800-metre.

She moved to the US to join the Nike Oregon Project, an elite athletics programme, under trainer Alberto Salazar, who in 2019 was banned from athletics for doping violations. Salazar denied the allegations and appealed against the ban from the US Anti-Doping Agency to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A verdict is expected this summer.

Hassan has said the period examined by the anti-doping agency predated her time with the Oregon group, and she has not been accused of any conduct that violates the rules of athletics. 

Salazar’s ban came in the middle of the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where Hassan completed another unprecedented double, winning the 10,000-metre and the 1,500-metre. “If they want to test me, they can test me every single day. Every single day”, she told reporters at the time. “I’m always clean, I will always be clean.”

Since then, Hassan’s training has been upended. After Nike shut down the Oregon Project training group as a result of the doping allegations, she initially stayed in the US to prepare for the Olympics under a new coach, Tim Rowberry.

But at the onset of the pandemic, she returned to Europe to split her time between the Netherlands and St Moritz, Switzerland, being coached remotely on WhatsApp and FaceTime. “It’s all pretty strange,” she told Dutch media last year.

Part of the difficulty of her endeavour in Tokyo is the sheer amount of running that completing the treble requires: two rounds each of the 5,000-metre, three rounds of the 1,500-metre, culminating with one championship run of the 10,000-metre on Saturday. That is 24,500 metres over eight days of racing in the heat and humidity of Tokyo.

Should she advance to the 1,500-metre final on Friday, she will have less than 24 hours to recover for the 10,000-metre final on Saturday.

By her own admission, she has struggled with the commitment she has made. After her fall in the 1,500-metre, she said: “There was pain everywhere and I was so tired. I was talking to myself, ‘you can’t, no you can’t’.”

However, Hassan said it was not just about winning but about challenging herself. “Life is not about the gold, the winner, it’s also about following your heart.”

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