Olympic 3-time gold medalist Sifan Hassan looks to history

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Is it possible for Sifan Hassan to win three gold medals in Tokyo? She has officially completed her attempt for the Olympic distance triple on the track, winning the first of the three events, the 5,000m, on the same day she collapsed in the 1500m heat, got up, and pursued down the pack to win.

Sifan Hassan has decided to compete in the 1,500m as part of her Olympic bid. “The 2019 World Champion, who won both the 1,500m and 10,000m, will exhibit her range again at the Tokyo Olympic Games,” her agency, Global Sports Communications, stated in a press statement released Sunday evening. “She is excited to take on the massive task and wants to push herself in her favourite distances.”

There has never been a runner who has won the 5,000m, 1,500m, and 10,000m in the same Olympics.

Hassan would join Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zátopek, and other multi-victory legends whose golden shadows still shimmer over the Tokyo track if he achieved the treble.

Trebles at the Olympics

Paavo Nurmi was capable of achieving the same treble as Hassan in 1924, if not more. He won the 1500m and 5,000m in Paris, as well as the 10K cross-country and team gold in that event. With four gold medals in distance running in one Games, he is unrivalled. However, Finland’s team management decided to leave him out of the 10,000m, where he was the defending champion. Nurmi was so enraged that he went to the training track and raced a solo 10,000m, quicker than his teammate Ville Ritola’s gold medal time in the stadium, while the Olympic race was still going on. That anecdote may be Olympic folklore, but with Nurmi, who was motivated by Finnish sisu, it’s entirely plausible. In 1920, Nurmi won gold in the 10,000m and cross-country events, as well as the 10,000m in 1928.

Czech Emil Zatopek leads during the Olympic 5000 meter race in Helsinki in 1952
Czech Emil Zatopek leads during the Olympic 5000 meter race in Helsinki in 1952 Photo: AFP/Getty

Emil Zátopek is also unrivalled for his three gold medals in 1952 at the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon. He is the first person to win the marathon and another gold at the same Games – in his case, two more golds for an unrivalled treble. On the track, the indefatigable Czech, known as the “Colossus,” set 17 world records up to 30 kilometres and compiled a 69-race winning streak over 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the three years leading up to the Games. The Olympic marathon, on the other hand, was his first attempt at the distance. Quite a debut! To win, Zátopek had to break the heart of world record holder Jim Peters (GBR) by naively questioning a rookie about the speed as they raced a minute ahead of the rest of the field (alongside Swede Gustaf Jansson). By 2 minutes 32 seconds, Zátopek had won (2:23:03.2).

Hannes Kolehmainen wins the Olympic marathon in 1920.
Hannes Kolehmainen wins the Olympic marathon in 1920. Photo: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty

In 1912, Hannes Kolehmainen (Finland) won three events: the 5,000m, 10,000m, and cross-country. The Swedes edged Finland for the cross-country team title, denying Kolehmainen his fourth gold medal. He won the marathon eight years later, at the post-World War I Games in Antwerp, to cement his place among the multi-victory legends. What was the name of the American who won the 1920 Olympic marathon? Kolehmainen had become a U.S. citizen and was living in New York City at the time, but Olympic rules at the time prohibited altering national affiliations, thus after winning for Finland in 1912, he grudgingly won for Finland again in 1920.

Olympic Doubles is a sport set of two people.

Lasse Viren running in the final of the Olympic 10,000 meter race in 1972
Lasse Viren running in the final of the Olympic 10,000 meter race in 1972 Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty

Lasse Viren (Finland) earned his particular status by winning the 5,000m/10,000m double in 1972 and 1976. To accomplish so, he had to outsmart and outrace the likes of Miruts Yifter, Mohammed Gammoudi, Steve Prefontaine, Carlos Lopes, Brendan Foster, and Dick Quax over two generations of severe competition. The first of the four Viren races, the Munich 10,000, was the ultimate Viren race. Viren was tripped, crashed, fell to the track, got back up, chased, closed, seized the lead at 6k, broke most of the field, and won by one second in a world record-setting 27:38.35. One of sports’ great comeback tales, but only the first of four for “Mr. Cool” Viren.

Mo Farah (GBR) repeated Viren’s feat by winning the 5,000m and 10,000m in 2012 and 2016, demonstrating incredible control throughout each race to allow for his unbeatable last-mile burst.

Hicham El Guerrouj and Eliud Kipchoge compete in the 5,000 meter final in 2004
Hicham El Guerrouj and Eliud Kipchoge compete in the 5,000 meter final in 2004 Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty

Other than Nurmi, Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco) is the only runner to bridge the middle-distance/long-distance divide by winning the twice-difficult 1500m/5,000m double in 2004. He, like Viren, had to work hard for it, defeating Bernard Lagat (then Kenya) in the shorter race and double-hungry Kenenisa Bekele over 5,000m, with a young Kenyan named Eliud Kipchoge finishing third. Guerrouj’s kick, and how well he used it, characterised him. The combined margin of victory for those two triumphs was 0.32 seconds (0.12 and 0.20). Blink once and you’ll win two gold medals at the Olympics!

Tirunesh Dibaba Kenene competes in the 5000 meter final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008
Tirunesh Dibaba Kenene competes in the 5000 meter final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 Photo: Stu Forster/Getty

Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) is the only woman to win both the 5,000m and 10,000m races in Beijing in 2008. She went on to win the 10,000m again in 2012, as well as third in the 5,000m and bronze in the 10,000m in 2016. She was also one of the most flawless cross-country runners in history. If cross-country had been reinstated to its rightful place on the Olympic schedule, she could have given us a treble. Of course, women have had a limited opportunity to join this exclusive club, with the entire range of distance events not becoming available until 1996. (and the steeplechase not till 2008). Kelly Holmes (GBR), who won the 800m/1500m double in 2004, is the only other woman to have done so.

Double Honor Roll at a Distance

Surprisingly, 16 runners have completed doubles (including 800/1500) at 17 Olympic Games.
The following is the complete list of honours, in chronological order:
Teddy Flack (Australia) 800/1500 in 1896
1904 800/1500 James Lightbody (USA)
Mel Sheppard (USA) 800/1500 in 1908.
1912 5,000/10,000/cross-country Hannes Kolehmainen (Finland)
800/1500 Albert Hill (GBR) 1920
1924 Paavo Nurmi (Finland) 10,000 metre cross-country runner/cross-country team
Paavo Nurmi 1500/5,000/cross-country/cross-country squad, 1928
1952 5,000/10,000/marathon Emil Zátopek (Czech)
1956 5,000/10,000 Vladimir Kuts (USSR)
1964 800/1500 Peter Snell (New Zealand)
Lasse Viren (Finland) 5,000/10,000 in 1972
Lasse Viren, 1976 5,000/10,000
Miruts Yifter (Ethiopia) 5,000/10,000 Miruts Yifter (Ethiopia) 5,000/10,000 Miruts Yifter (E
1500/5,000 Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco) 2004
2004 W800/1500 Kelly Holmes (GBR)
5,000/10,000 Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) 2008
W5,000/10,000 Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) 2008
Mo Farah (GBR) 5,000/10,000 in 2012
5,000/10,000 metre sprinter Mo Farah (GBR) in 2016.

In his famous When Running Made History and forthcoming (2022) Running’s Greatest Anecdotes, Roger Robinson offers the best stories about running.

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