Sifan Hassan’s odyssey from refugee to one of the greatest athletes of this or any other era was confirmed in Tokyo as she became the first person to win three medals over 1500m, 5,000m and 10,000m.
The last leg of the treble, after 5,000m gold and 1,500m bronze, came as the Dutch athlete sprinted clear of Bahrain’s Kalkidan Gezahegne to win the 10,000m in 29min 55.32sec, with Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia, the world record holder, winning bronze. It made Hassan the second woman to earn a medal in three individual track races at one Olympics. The other was also a Dutchwoman – Fanny Blankers-Koen, a mother of two who was known as the Flying Housewife, who won her three at the London Olympics in 1948.
Hassan ran over 61 laps on the track across six races. But she also had to fight her demons off the track. “The last two weeks, sometimes I woke up from a nightmare and I asked: ‘Why do I have to make myself so stressed?’” she said. “But something inside me said to keep on going. I think I was kind of crazy, but now I am really happy.” Even as the laps ticked by in the 10,000m she said she was scared. “I had so many doubts. I was talking to myself: it’s not possible. The 10,000m is scary. But the fear is what makes us strong.”
What make’s Hassan’s story even more remarkable is that she was born in Ethiopia but moved to the Netherlands aged 15 as a refugee in 2008, where she moved into a shelter for asylum seekers.
“I really had an amazing life until I was 14,” she said. “I was full of play, outside, happy. After 14 I really had difficulty. Life put me down so many times, but I am here today.”
When she moved into a house with other asylum seekers she told her supervisor she would like to run, but only had an old pair of trainers. However, her club provided her with spikes. “I think all of us, nobody has a perfect life,” she said. “I tell people: ‘When life is hard, you will see yourself like you never imagined before. Never give up.’”
Hassan talked movingly about how she had found it hard to train in Ramadan in the heat. But hers is a complicated story. She also previously trained at the Nike Oregon Project under Alberto Salazar, who is appealing against a ban from athletics for doping violations in 2019. While some have raised eyebrows about her performances, she has always denied any wrongdoing.
“I am so happy,” she said. I have no words. I am just so thankful and I don’t think I could have done any better than this. During the medal ceremony I was thinking: ‘It is over. Now you can sleep.’ But I am super happy.”
Britain’s Eilish McColgan finished a brave ninth in 31:04.46, seven seconds outside her mother Liz’s UK record of 30:57.07, while Jess Judd was 18th in 31:56.80.