Sifan Hassan in action in the 5000m at the Tokyo Olympics (© AFP / Getty Images)
What can stop Sifan Hassan from completing a historic distance treble at the Tokyo Olympic Games?
Not falling in the heats of the 1500m, which happened this morning. Not running for a gold medal in 28C and 84 percent humidity 12 hours later, which happened this evening. Not as talented a field of 5000m specialists as can be assembled anywhere in the world.
The 28-year-old Dutchwoman conquered it all on a dramatic day in the Olympic stadium to complete the first leg of what might be described as the “Sifan Slam” with victory in the 5000m final.
Hassan was dawdling around the back of the field at the bell in her 1500m heat when she met with a near-disaster. A domino effect as the women jockeyed for position brought down the runner directly ahead of her and she had nowhere to go but down.
However, she sprang back up immediately and set off after the pack, now vanishing into the distance. Within 50 metres she had raced back to the group and proceeded to pass the entire field over the final 300m and win the race.
The question was how much that burst of adrenalin and energy may have hurt her before tonight’s 5000m final. The answer was not much, if at all.
However, when the race started she dropped immediately to the back of the field and jogged through the first kilometre, conserving her strength for the fight to come. She slowly made her way forward over the next three kilometres before gliding into the top group with three laps to go.
At the bell, she surged, before she launched into an irresistible sprint down the back straight, taking the lead with 250 metres to go and never looking back. She stopped the clock in 14:36.79.
Kenya’s world champion Hellen Obiri (14:38.36) and Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay (14:38.87) gave chase valiantly but were unable to make any inroads once Hassan hit top speed.
Hassan said the shock of her fall made her feel like she had drunk “20 cups of coffee” and the adrenalin spike had left her exhausted before tonight’s race.
“I can’t believe I am the Olympic champion – I was so scared. I thought I was not going to make it.”
With her first Olympic gold medal secured, Hassan will return to the track on Wednesday evening to continue her quest for immortality in the 1500m semifinals.
Earlier, Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali snapped one of sport’s longest winning streaks, becoming the first non-Kenyan to win the Olympic 3000m steeplechase title since 1980. Were it not for Kenya’s Olympic boycotts in 1976 and 1980, their winning streak would extend back to 1968.
For 47 years, Kenya has held this title but El Bakkali, who has so often finished in the wake of Kenyans in other competitions, was a convincing winner this time, finishing more than a second clear (8:08.90) of Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma (8:10.38) and Kenya’s Benjamin Kigen (8:11.45).
"I am so used to seeing Kenyans win, it's a big accomplishment for me,” El Bakkali said. “I have been aiming for this for years and this was my opportunity to show that Morocco is capable of winning this prize in front of the Kenyans.”
Meanwhile, a mid-session downpour made life difficult for the throwers in the women’s discus as they struggled with their footing as the circle was saturated. When Portugal’s Liliana Ca slipped and fell while attempting her third round throw, the contest was temporarily suspended for an hour, as was the qualifying round in the women’s pole vault.
Before the weather intervened, USA’s Valarie Allman had taken control of the competition with the very first throw of the final, hurling the disc 68.98m, and no one else could approach that mark. Germany’s Kristin Pudenz moved into the silver medal position with a fifth-round personal best of 66.86m, while world champion Yaime Perez’s first throw of 65.72m was enough to secure the bronze.
Dual Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic was off the podium for the first time in three Olympics, finishing fourth (65.01m).
When the women’s pole vault resumed, it produced an upset.
USA’s 2016 Olympic silver medallist Sandi Morris bowed out after a potentially dangerous incident when she broke her pole as she attempted to clear 4.55m. She landed awkwardly on the mat and was clearly hampered by a hip injury as she took her second and third attempts at the qualifying height.
Fifteen other women cleared 4.55m to progress to the final, including defending champion Katerina Stefanidi, world champion Anzhelika Sidorova, 2015 world champion Yarisley Silva and US champion Katie Nageotte.
While the field events were interrupted, the women’s 400m hurdles semifinals went on, giving world champion Dalilah Muhammad, world record-holder Sydney McLaughlin and Dutch contender Femke Bol an opportunity to shine in the difficult conditions, and they did.
Muhammad was impressive, winning the first semifinal in 53.30, only to be trumped by McLaughlin’s effortless 53.03 in the next race. Bol took a steadier approach but was untroubled to win her qualifier in 53.91.
Wayde van Niekerk’s troubled Olympic 400m title defence ended in the semifinals as he finished fifth (45.14), exactly a second behind world champion Steven Gardiner.
The resurgent 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James set the pace in the first semifinal, winning in 43.88 from Colombian Anthony Zambrano (43.93). USA’s Michael Cherry was the other semifinal winner in 44.44.
Saturday’s 100m winner Elaine Thompson-Herah looks headed towards her second consecutive sprint double at the Olympic Games after a scintillating 200m semifinal run of 21.66 tonight.
Thompson-Herah put daylight between herself and the field, powering around the bend into the straight with a three-metre lead and holding her form to the finish line.
Namibian teenager Christine Mboma set a world U20 record of 21.97 to qualify for her first Olympic final in second place, overtaking US contender Gabby Thomas (22.01) in the last 10 metres. Thomas was the fastest non-automatic qualifier and progressed to the final.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was an equally convincing winner of the first semifinal in 22.13, while Marie-Josee Ta Lou set a personal best of 22.11 to hold off Shaunae Miller-Uibo (22.14) in the third qualifying race.
The women’s 200m final will be held tomorrow night.
Nicole Jeffery for World Athletics