Redefining the notion of women's distance running

DOHA, Qatar — After all the noise the past few days over Alberto Salazar, finally, Sifan Hassan was free Saturday night to run.

She ran hard, she ran fast, she ran angry. She ran to make a statement and history.

Wow, did she make a statement — that the four-year doping ban handed Salazar late Monday was not going to be a distraction, that she was here on a mission and, people, get out of the way. 

What Sifan Hassan did here at the 2019 IAAF track and field championships may be nothing less than redefine the way we think about women’s distance running.

Sifan Hassan wins the women’s 1500 // Getty Images

Sifan Hassan wins the women’s 1500 // Getty Images

Winner of the 10,000 meters earlier in these championships, Hassan swept late Saturday to a truly historic double, front-running to a championship-record 3:51.95 to take the 1500 as well. 

She is the first to win the 1500 and the 10k at a single world championships or single Olympic Games.

“I’m so happy,” she said before dancing a victory lap around the track, barefoot.

Her dominance came just minutes before the Americans Joe Kovacs and Ryan Crouser went 1-2 in the shot put, Kovacs winning by one centimeter with a throw that equaled the third-best in history, 22.91 meters, 75 feet, 2 inches, the competition producing three of the seven best throws in history; Jamaica easily won the women’s 4x100 women’s relay, in a world-lead 41.44 seconds, Great Britain second and the U.S. third; the U.S. men’s 4x1, in one of the smoothest-looking relays in years, swept to victory in an American-record 37.1, with Christian Coleman running the first leg, Justin Gatlin in the No. 2 spot, Michael Rodgers No. 3 and Noah Lyles anchoring. 

“We had a talk this morning before we came out here and said, let’s do this,” Gatlin said. It was the first worlds or Olympic victory in the 4x1 for the U.S. men since 2007.

“I’m proud of you, man,” Lyles said to Coleman, the bro talk making up for some chiippiness after some early-season races.

For all that, the specter of Alberto Salazar — whose credential was pulled immediately upon the news  of his four-year ban — has hung heavy over these championships.

Virtually every athlete with any connection to Salazar has been forced to confront the inevitable. What did you know? Were you — you know? How can we trust you? Broadly speaking, and of course this is the existential question ever-present in track and field: how much of what you see out there is trustworthy? Anything?

After her opening heat, for instance, Jenny Simpson — the women’s 1500 Rio Olympic 2016 bronze medalist, 2017 worlds silver medalist and 2011 world champion — said, “Anybody who knows anything about this sport knows there is a shadow, a black cloud, whatever the analogy you want to make, over that group. Anyone that is shocked isn’t involved in the sport.”

After the Salazar news broke, Hassan — who was born in Ethiopia, claims Dutch nationality and trains with the Nike Oregon Project — was quick to issue a statement that said she was “shocked,” adding, “I like to state that this investigation is focused on the period before I joined the Oregon Project and therefore has no relation to me. I was aware of the ongoing investigation when I joined the team and have always had a clean conscience knowing we are being monitored to the absolute fullest by USADA and WADA.”

She said in an interview late Saturday, “Since I joined I have seen nothing [illicit]. I have seen nothing [wrong]. They never offer anything to me.”

She also said, asked if her double here makes it all the more likely that people will want to be skeptical of what she has accomplished, “I have been a good athlete since 2014 … What do they think? They think they don’t test me?”

Asked if she ran with fury in Saturday’s 1500, because it sure seemed so, she answered emphatically: “Yes,” she said, “I was angry at the situation that has happened this week … it made me very angry.”

On Day Two of these championships, last Saturday, Hassan ran away with the 10k in one of the most remarkable performances of all time. It was her first global outdoor title. 

Hassan crossed in 30:17.62. 

Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey, the world junior cross-country champion, took second, in 30:21.23, with Agnes Tirop of Kenya third in 30:25.20.

The numbers tell the story.

Hassan ran the first half of the race in 15:33.82.

The back half: 14:43.80.

The last 1500: 3:59.09. That number is — a new way of thinking about the women’s 10k. To go that hard after 26 minutes of racing is — revelatory. Consider: as a standalone 1500 (before Saturday night’s racing, obviously), it would have been fifth in the world in 2019 (and three of the four came at the race in June in Rabat, Morocco)

The final lap: 61.49.

The Salazar ruling was issued late Monday in the States, early Tuesday here in Doha. 

By then, Hassan had a choice: the 1500 or the 5000, because the program featured both on Saturday night. 

Salazar was said to be leaning toward the 5k. She said, 1500. Before his credential was taken away, which happened very quickly upon news of the arbitration ruling, she said they had this conversation: 

Him: “I know you, because if you believe in something, you go for it and you always follow your heart.” 

Her: “Thank you. I am going to go full out.” 

Him: “I believe in you.”

That 5k, by the way — Hellen Obiri of Kenya repeated her 2017 victory. Her 2019 time: 14:26.72.

In the 1500, full out is exactly how Hassan went.

By 300 meters, she was in front. For the next 800 meters, she was a metronome — 100 meters in 15 seconds and change. Then the next 300 meters it was 14.8, 14.34, 14.52. By the time she entered the homestretch, which she ran in 15.68, she had a huge 15-meter lead. Her championship-record 3:51.96 was the sixth-fastest mark of all-time. The five ahead: Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia (3:50.07 in 2015) and four Chinese who were coached by Ma Junren in the 1990s.

When Hassan crossed the line, she crossed to the track in complete joy. On her back, she pumped her fists in joy. Then came the barefoot skip around the track.

Faith Kipyegon of Kenya ran a national-record 3:54.22 and was still two-plus seconds back. In the women’s 1500, Kipyegon is both the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist and the 2017 London champion. It should also be noted: Kipyegon gave birth just over a year ago to her first child.

Gudaf Tsegay of Ethiopia, who got third at the Portland 2016 world indoors in the 1500, ran a personal-best 3:54.38 for bronze.

Shelby Houlihan ran an American-record 3:54.99. That got her fourth. 

Britain’s Laura Muir took fifth, a season-best 3:55.76.

Similarly: Gabriela Debues-Stafford of Canada, a national record 3:56.12, sixth. Winny Chebet of Kenya, a personal-best 3:58.2, seventh. Simpson, a season-best 3:58.42, eighth.

“I just go for it,” Hassan said. “I want to run fast and I want to show the world that I can run a championship fast time and get a gold medal.”