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Who and What to Watch in the Women’s Olympic 10,000m

The Tokyo Games will play host to one of the greatest 10,000m show-downs in Olympic history, with the two fastest female athletes of all time squaring off. 

The 10,000m was once described by Sebastian Coe as “lap after lap of waiting,” and that’s often accurate about the 25-lap race, with athletes trusting their kicks and biding their time until the closing mile in many championships. In Tokyo, however, the longest event on the track is likely to be a grueling test. Many of the leading contenders for gold don’t possess strong kicks and will have no option but to push the pace from far out, thinning the field as contenders fall off the back. Still, a fast kick — after miles of a punishing pace — will nonetheless likely be needed to win gold.

The Tokyo Games will play host to two of the greatest 10,000m line-ups in Olympic history, with the two fastest female athletes of all time squaring off in the women’s race. 

Sifan Hassan of Netherlands on her way to victory from Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia in the Women's 10,000 meters final at the 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
Sifan Hassan of Netherlands on her way to victory from Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia in the Women’s 10,000 meters final at the 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Women’s Olympic 10,000m Preview

The Tokyo Games have already played host to one outstanding 10,000m final, the opening night at the Olympic Stadium seeing Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega out-kicking Uganda duo Joshua Cheptegei and Jacob Kiplimo.

The clash awaiting on the final night of track action this Saturday might be even more anticipated, playing  host as it does to the final leg of Sifan Hassan’s triple along with the first appearance at the Games by Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey, the fastest woman of all time at the distance.

Because the Ethiopian federation did not allow any athlete to double in Tokyo, Gidey had to focus on one distance and as such, she will go into this final with fresh legs. The same can’t be said for Hassan who will have run five races before toeing the line here: three rounds of the 1500m and two in the 5000m.

A fall in her 1500m heat, 12 hours before the 5000m final, had left her a little bruised physically and shaken up mentally.

“When I warm up I usually go quick, but today I had pain everywhere and was really tired,” she said after the 5000m final, where she won gold. “I was talking to myself, ‘you can’t, no you can.’ Until the finish I was talking to myself and until now I couldn’t believe it, it was like a nightmare.”

The race will likely boil down to a head-to-head between Hassan and Gidey, a clash between the Dutch woman’s speed and the Ethiopian’s endurance. Hassan broke the 10,000m world record in Hengelo in early June with a stunning 29:06.82, only for Gidey to emerge two days later and break it again, clocking 29:01.03 at the Ethiopian Olympic trials on the same track.

They clashed in memorable fashion at the 2019 World Championships, where Gidey started hammering at the front four laps out but was eventually overpowered by Hassan’s finishing speed.

“Gidey’s only move against Hassan is to take it from far out,” said Alistair Cragg, a two-time Olympian for Ireland who now coaches a Puma-sponsored professional group in North Carolina. “It could be 1500 out, it could be 2K, 3K or it could her running world record pace for the last 5K. She’s got to play a card whereas Hassan and the others can all sit and watch it happen.”

Kenya’s Hellen Obiri seems the most likely to challenge the two, but despite her class it’s hard to see her living with the pace of Gidey and Hassan over the latter half. She won silver behind Hassan in the 5000m earlier in the week but limped badly through the mixed zone after, holding an ice pack to her hip. Whether she can be back at her best in a few days is unlikely, and she’ll need to be better than that to challenge for gold.

Hassan was asked at the Monaco diamond league how the Olympic final might play out.

“Letesenbet could go hard, I’m sure she’s going to go hard the last 2K or the last 3K,” she said. “It’s about waiting until the last 400 or last 200.”

If she can get to the bell in touch with Gidey, it’s game over for the Ethiopian. But the world record holder will try to put her to the sword long before that.

The rest of the field will likely be shooting for bronze, and might provide some of the most interesting distance running of the Games as strength runners like Emily Sisson try to put some space between themselves and the pack before the kick, risking blowing up before the end in the Tokyo heat.

Women’s 10,000m

Date: August 7 — Final
Time: 7 p.m. local time / 6 a.m. EDT

Venue: Olympic Stadium