Sifan Hassan destroys top-class 5,000m field in first leg of unique treble bid

One down, two to go. Sifan Hassan won the first leg of her Tokyo triple by taking the gold medal in the women’s 5,000m. And, being Hassan, she did it style, with a finishing kick that swept her from past four of the finest long-distance runners in the world. Her final time of 14min 36.79sec did not break any records, but that last lap did. No woman had run a quicker final 400m in this event in the Olympics, no woman had, in fact, come close to doing anything like it. It was unprecedented, like so much else Hassan is doing this week. “Many people say I’m crazy,” she said. “Believe me, I think I’m crazy too.”

Next up, Hassan has the semi-finals of the 1500m on Wednesday, the final of that same event on Friday, and then the 10,000m on Saturday. If she can do it, it would be one of the greatest feats in Olympic history.

And it almost ended before it had even really started. Earlier in the day, Hassan fell on the last lap of her 1,500m heat, but jumped back to her feet and sprinted back past the field, in what has already become one of the iconic races of these Games. She could have stayed down and lodged a protest, other runners did, and were allowed to run again in a later heat. “Believe me, I thought about it,” Hassan said. “But I told myself: ‘No I don’t want to regret it, I don’t want any excuses, I don’t want people to say that I only recovered because I stopped running.’” It was a wild bit of thinking, but it worked out. The fall, and the recovery, took so much out of Hassan that she convinced herself she had no chance of winning the 5,000m.

“Sometimes bad things do good,” Hassan said, “because really there is a lot of pressure on me running these three distances, running in the morning, running in the evening, I never do that, even in training, and the 5,000m was a really strong field. After I fell down I was so tired, and had pain everywhere and I thought ‘well I don’t really have a chance to win this now’, I’m just going to finish the race and see what I can do.” Hassan was still thinking like that during the race. “I was talking to myself, saying: ‘I can’t, I can’t. I can’t,’ like some crazy person, I was talking to myself all the way until the finish.”

Hassan was up against three Kenyans – Hellen Obiri, Agnes Jebet Tirop, and Lilian Kasait Rengeruk – and three Ethiopians: Gudaf Tsegay, Ejgayehu Taye, and Senbere Teferi. Obiri, is a two-time world champion, between them Tsegay, Taye, and Teferi have run three of the 10 fastest times in history. It was one of the strongest 5,000m fields ever put together, and Hassan, running all on her own, without a single teammate to help her, cut through it like a knife through butter.

Hassan spent the first half of the race in 10th place, sitting on the back of a pack led at first by Japan’s Ririka Hironaka, and then by Obiri, and Taye. Really they needed to try and draw the sting out of Hassan’s kick, but the heavy rain which fell shortly before the start hadn’t made the air any less hot and humid, and the race went at a slow and steady sort of pace. When the bell went, Hassan was fifth, behind Taye, Tirop, Tsegay, and Obiri. She took the lead with 250m or so to go, and after that there was no catching her. “I knew she was going to destroy the field,” Obiri said later. Hard as she tried, there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Hassan only decided to enter all three races a month ago, when she came second in the 1500m at the Diamond League in Monaco. “Sometimes when I lose something inside me wakes up,” she said. “Monaco didn’t go the way I wanted and after I went to my manager and said ‘I’m going to do three distances’ and he’s like ‘huh?’ And I was like ‘Yes, I just decided. I want to do three.’ Life is not just about the goals, about winning, about medals, it’s about following your heart, you know?” And that’s what her heart told her to do. It might have mixed feelings about that now. “All my body hurts, my feet, my legs, my heart, everything, it’s like a nightmare.”

Obiri’s defeat capped a disappointing evening for Kenya. Abraham Kibiwott and Benjamin Kigen lost the 3,000m steeplechase to Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali. It was the first time Kenya have been beaten in the event since 1964, since then, the only Games when they haven’t won it were the ones they boycotted in 1976 and 1980.

That rain made hard work of the women’s discus, which was won by the USA’s Valarie Allman, with a throw of 68.98m. Allman did that in the opening round, and no one was able to get near it during the rest of the night. Sandra Perkovic, who won the event at London 2012 and Rio 2016 finished in fourth. Along with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Perkovic was one of a handful of two-time athletes at these Games trying to become the first female athlete ever to win three gold medals in the same event. And like Fraser-Pryce, she couldn’t quite do it. Making history isn’t easy, even if Hassan makes it look like it is.

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