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Olympics

Sifan Hassan Joins a Select Group of Historic Multi-Medalists

With medals in the 10,000m, 5,000m and 1500m at the same Olympics, Hassan steps onto a special podium with a select few who secured memorable distance triples and doubles.

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With Sifan Hassan’s gold in the 10,000m, outlasting world-record holder Letesenbet Gidey,  she steps onto a very special podium with a few multi-medalists in the Games throughout history.

Hassan set out to do what no runner has ever accomplished before: win the 5,000m, 1500m, and 10,000m at the same Olympics. After her 3rd-place finish in the 1500m, her bid for three gold medals was lost. But her 10,000m victory puts Hassan in rare company, with Tirunesh Dibaba, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zátopek, and other multi-victory giants whose golden shadows still shimmer over the Tokyo track.

Olympic Trebles

Paavo Nurmi of Finland winning the 5000 metres at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games
Paavo Nurmi of Finland winning the 5000 metres at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games Photo: PA Images via Getty Images

Paavo Nurmi was ready for the same treble as Hassan attempted, and more. In Paris 1924, he won the 1500m, and 5,000m,  plus the 10K cross-country, and team gold in that race. With four distance-running golds at one Games he stands unmatched. But Finland’s team management left him out of the 10,000m, where he would have been defending champion. Nurmi was so infuriated that while the Olympic race was in progress, he went to the training track and ran a solo 10,000m, faster than his team-mate Ville Ritola’s gold medal time in the stadium. That story may be Olympic urban legend, but with Nurmi, driven as he was by Finnish sisu, it’s totally credible. Nurmi also won golds at 10,000m and cross-country in 1920, and 10,000m in 1928.

Czech Emil Zatopek leads on July 26,1952 in front of French Alain Mimoun and German Herbert Schade during the Olympic 5000m in Helsinki. During his career Emil Zatopek, four-time Olympic champion (1948, 10000m - 1952, 5000m, 10000m, and marathon) established 18 world records.
Czech Emil Zatopek leads on July 26,1952 in front of French Alain Mimoun and German Herbert Schade during the Olympic 5000m in Helsinki. During his career Emil Zatopek, four-time Olympic champion (1948, 10000m – 1952, 5000m, 10000m, and marathon) established 18 world records. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Emil Zátopek also stands unmatched, for his three golds at 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon in 1952. He alone has won the marathon and another gold at the same Games — two other golds in his case, an unmatched triple. On the track, the indefatigable Czech was called the “Colossus,” set 17 world records up to 30K, and in the three-year build up to the Games he compiled a streak of 69 wins over 5,000m and 10,000m. But the Olympic marathon was his first try at the distance. Some debut! To win it, Zátopek had to break the heart of the world record holder, Jim Peters (GBR) by innocently asking a novice’s questions about the pace, as they raced (with Swede Gustaf Jansson) a minute ahead of the rest of the field. Zátopek won by 2 minutes 32 seconds (2:23:03.2).

Finnish runner Hannes Kolehmainen entering the Olympisch Stadion to win the gold medal in the Marathon, 22nd August 1920.
Finnish runner Hannes Kolehmainen entering the Olympisch Stadion to win the gold medal in the Marathon, 22nd August 1920. Photo: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hannes Kolehmainen (Finland) in 1912 also won three – 5,000m, 10,000m, and cross-country. Finland were edged by the Swedes for the cross-country team title, depriving Kolehmainen of a 4th gold medal. To seal his place among the multi-victory legends, he won the marathon eight years later, in the post-World War I Games in Antwerp in 1920. Trivia question: which American won the 1920 Olympic marathon? Answer: Kolehmainen at that date had become a U.S. citizen fully resident in New York City, but Olympic rules then did not permit switching national affiliation, so having won for Finland in 1912, he more reluctantly won for Finland again in 1920.

Olympic Doubles

Lasse Viren getting up from a spill before winning the 10,000m as part of his Olympic double double
Finland’s Lasse Viren, running in the final of the Olympic 10,000 meter run for men, hits the track after taking a spill in the 11th lap of the 24 lap race. Viren got off the track and then led that same pack to win a Gold Medal for the event and set both new World and Olympic records for the distance. His time of 27 minutes, 38.4 seconds shaved a full second off the old mark established by Australia’s Ron Clarke seven years prior. Photo: Getty Images

Lasse Viren (Finland) took his special place with a double double, winning the 5,000m/10,000m twice, 1972 and 1976. To do that, he had to overcome two generations of the fiercest competition, outsmarting and outracing the likes of Miruts Yifter, Mohammed Gammoudi, Steve Prefontaine, Carlos Lopes, Brendan Foster, and Dick Quax. The ultimate Viren race was the first of the four, the Munich 10,000. With Dave Bedford setting world-record pace, Viren was tripped, crashed, fell to the track, got back on his feet, chased, closed, took the lead at 6k, broke most of the field, and won by one second in a world record-setting 27:38.35. One of sport’s great comeback stories, but for “Mr. Cool” Viren, only the first of four.

Mo Farah (GBR) emulated Viren’s double double, winning 5,000m and 10,000m in 2012 and 2016, showing amazing ability to control every race to give scope to his unbeatable last mile acceleration. 

Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj (R) and Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge compete in the men's 5,000m final at the Olympic Stadium 28 August 2004 during the Olympic Games athletics competitions in Athens. El Guerrouj won the gold medal, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won silver and Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya took bronze.
Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj (R) and Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge compete in the men’s 5,000m final at the Olympic Stadium 28 August 2004 during the Olympic Games athletics competitions in Athens. El Guerrouj won the gold medal, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won silver and Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya took bronze. Photo: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco) in 2004 is the only runner other than Nurmi to bridge the middle-distance/long-distance gap by winning the doubly challenging 1500m/5,000m double. Like Viren, he really had to work for it, having to beat Bernard Lagat (then Kenya) in the shorter race, and double-hungry Kenenisa Bekele over 5,000m, with a youthful Kenyan called Eliud Kipchoge in third.  Guerrouj was defined by his kick, and how precisely he used it. The total margin of those two victories was 0.32sec (0.12 and 0.20). Blink once and win two Olympic gold medals!

Tirunesh Dibaba Kenene of Ethiopia on her way to winning the Women's 5000m Final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 22, 2008 in Beijing, China. She also won the 10,000 for the only female Olympic distance double
Tirunesh Dibaba Kenene of Ethiopia on her way to winning the Women’s 5000m Final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 22, 2008 in Beijing, China. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) is the only woman to double at long-distances, taking the 5,000m and 10,000m at Beijing in 2008. She followed up by repeating at 10,000m in 2012, plus third in the 5,000m, and a 10,000m bronze in 2016. She was also one of history’s most immaculate cross-country runners. What a treble she could have given us, if cross-country had been back in its deserved place on the Olympic schedule. Women of course have had very limited opportunity to join this special club, with the full range of distance events not available until 1996 (and the steeplechase not till 2008). The only other women’s double so far was by Kelly Holmes (GBR), 800m/1500m in 2004.

Distance Double Honor Roll

Surprisingly, doubles have been achieved (including 800/1500) by 16 runners at 17 Olympic Games.

Here is the full honors list, in chronological order:

1896 Teddy Flack (Australia) 800/1500   

1904 James Lightbody (USA) 800/1500

1908 Mel Sheppard (USA) 800/1500

1912 Hannes Kolehmainen (Finland) 5,000/10,000/cross-country

1920 Albert Hill (GBR) 800/1500

1924 Paavo Nurmi (Finland) 10,000/cross-country/XC team

1928 Paavo Nurmi 1500/5,000/cross-country/XC team

1952 Emil Zátopek (Czech) 5,000/10,000/marathon

1956 Vladimir Kuts (USSR) 5,000/10,000

1964 Peter Snell (New Zealand) 800/1500

1972 Lasse Viren (Finland) 5,000/10,000

1976 Lasse Viren 5,000/10,000

1980 Miruts Yifter (Ethiopia) 5,000/10,000

2004 Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco) 1500/5,000

2004 Kelly Holmes (GBR) W800/1500

2008 Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) 5,000/10,000

2008 Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) W5,000/10,000

2012 Mo Farah (GBR) 5,000/10,000

2016 Mo Farah (GBR) 5,000/10,000

Roger Robinson tells running’s best stories in his acclaimed When Running Made History and forthcoming (2022) Running’s Greatest Stories.