I’m not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,” the great Emil Zatopek once said.
As Sifan Hassan lay on the side of the track, exhausted, broken but surely elated after her bid for the greatest Olympic track treble since the Czech’s in 1952 ended in a second gold medal, she couldn’t quite raise one either.
But while the 28-year-old might have fallen just short in her assault on a hat-trick that would have drawn worthy comparison with Zatopek’s 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon successes 69 years ago, what the Dutch athlete has achieved over the last nine days has been utterly extraordinary, among the finest distance running feats of all-time.
Six races, more than 60 laps, one fall and three medals, a golden distance double and a 1500m bronze behind Faith Kipyegon, probably the best female exponent of that event the world has even seen.
As for the best male 1500m runner, well, in recent years that title has been reserved for Timothy Cheruiyot but no longer, the Kenyan defeated by Norwegian sensation Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who produced what felt like the umpteenth coming-of-age performance of his young career to take his first Olympic title, though it will surely not be his last.
Remarkably, it was the thirteenth time he had taken on the world champion, but the first in which he had come out on top. Even more remarkable? He is still only 20 years old.
Finishing behind that pair was Britain’s own flying Scotsman, Josh Kerr, who followed in the footsteps of Keely Hodgkinson and Laura Muir in proving that amid all the hype, this middle-distance crop are the real deal, living up to their promise on the biggest stage.
British Athletics has produced a wealth of 800m and 1500m talents over the last 20 or 30 years, many of them international champions at junior level and towards the top end of all-time lists as seniors, but this generation are wired differently.
They are bold and brave, but with the humility and astuteness that is a necessity if you hope to challenge the world’s elite. Here, Kerr followed the example of Muir and Hodginkson, striking the perfect balance between sitting off a pace too fast and not letting it get away from you, between letting it drag you past the rest and not committing tactical suicide.
Between that trio, they have now won as many Olympic middle-distance medals for Great Britain in the last week as the entire country had in the 33 years since the golden era of Coe, Cram, Ovett and Elliott came to an end after the 1988 Games – and all three of those had been won by one woman, Kelly Holmes.
Twenty-four hours ago, as Muir tore past Hassan to secure her silver, it looked as if the Dutch athlete’s stubbornness in pursuing the treble – a decision born out of the frustration of losing to Kipyegon in Monaco – might well cost her the 10,000m title as well.
She had looked out on her feet, helpless to respond as the effects of three rounds of the shorter distance, plus her 5,000m triumph of a week ago, finally set in. Lying in wait was Letesenbet Gidey, the Ethiopian who had taken the 10,000m world record off Hassan only 48 hours after she’d set it in Hengelo earlier this year, fresh and ready to make her first appearance of the Games, having decided to skip the 5,000m, despite the fact she is the fastest woman ever over that distance, too.
Having watched the competitors in that race bizarrely ignore the fact that the speed of Hassan, the mile world record holder, was in their midst, leaving things to a late sprint, Gidey set about trying to make this a test, cranking up the pace from halfway with a series of sub-three-minute kilometres that shook off much of the field but not Hassan, nor eventual silver medalist Kalkidan Gezahegne.
The sight of Gidey waving her arms, urging Hassan through to do her share of the donkey work on the front told you she was in trouble, and when the kick came there was only one possible outcome. That Hassan waited until 150m from home to go, rather than taking the bell as her usual trigger, told you all you needed to know about the toll her exploits have taken.
It would be remiss not to mention the obvious caveat: that for some, Hassan’s association with Nike’s murky Oregon Project and its disgraced head coach Alberto Salazar will forever taint her achievements and her legacy. The more unbelievable her exploits become, the more the suspicions grow.
News of Salazar’s doping ban emerged in the middle of Hassan’s unprecedented 1500m-10,000m double at the World Championships two years ago, and though she has never been implicated, the anger she feels at even the slightest suggestion of any wrongdoing still seems to add fuel to her charge. As empty as the tank must have been running tonight, she found a way to eke out a little more.