- BBC News World
Sifan Hassan made history this Saturday at the Tokyo Olympics by winning the gold medal in the final of the 10,000 meters of athletics.
It is the third medal of the Dutch athlete in these games, the second gold.
No athlete had previously achieved three medals in the distance events in athletics.
Hassan achieved gold in the 10,000 and 5,000, and bronze in the 1,500 for the Netherlands, the country that took her in as a refugee when she left her native Ethiopia.
The runner beat Kalkidan Gezahegne, from Bahrain, who won silver, and Letesenbet Gidey, from Ethiopia, in the final of the 10,000.
Hassan’s victory in three such demanding events of Olympic athletics reflects the toughness of character on the track that he has had to show in his life. In the semi-final of the 1,500s, he crashed on the last lap and had to accelerate to regain lost ground and qualify.
The iron will of the 28-year-old runner is summed up in the verse of the Koran, the holy text of Muslims, which she cited as her favorite in an interview with the Dutch daily NRC: “With difficulties will come relief.”
His character was forged in his childhood in Ethiopia, which he abandoned in 2008, after years living with his mother and grandmother. Hassan has never wanted to reveal what prompted her to leave her home country. “I have to look forward. There are days when I am happy, others when I am less so,” she has commented on occasion.
Life was not easy either at the Zuidlaren reception center for minors asylum seekers, where she was temporarily housed upon arrival in the Netherlands, and she said there she cried daily.
Until her athletic abilities brought her under the tutelage of coach Honore Hoedt in 2012.
Hoedt told the Volkskrant newspaper that he was initially surprised by this “lanky” girl who showed great capacity for work.
As she began to win races, Hassan was training to work as a nurse in her new home.
Until 2015 she was coached by Hoedt, who commented that her winning character was not always easy to handle. “He can be recalcitrant. He couldn’t handle losses and when he lost he would lock himself up for days,” he said. According to Hoedte, “a fire ignites within her that does not always explode in the right direction.”
His performance in Tokyo shows that Hassan has matured and learned to digest disappointment.
The Dutch champion is also a controversial figure for some due to her closeness to coach Alberto Salazar, disqualified by US sports authorities for inappropriate sexual and emotional behavior.
Salazar was in charge of the so-called Oregon Project, funded by the sports firm Nike for elite athletes. After training with him, Hassan defended Salazar. “I believe in the Oregon Project. I have seen Alberto. He has worked really hard and that is what I know,” she said at a press conference after proclaiming herself the 1,500 and 10,000 meter world champion in Doha in 2019.
The Oregon Project was finally shut down after the Salazar scandal, but Hassan’s career continued under the guidance of Tim Rowberry, one of Salazar’s aides.
Tokyo’s success was the latest chapter in a career that actually began when I was a child in Ethiopia.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.