Sifan Hassan's journey to Olympic glory from the hardship of a teenage refugee

Ethiopian-born athlete won three medals for the Netherlands 13 years after arriving in the country as an asylum seeker

The year was 1992, and Dutchwoman Ellen van Langen was celebrating winning the 800-metre final at the Barcelona Olympics. Little did she know that her successor to claim an athletics gold medal for the Netherlands would not be born until the following year – in Adama, Ethiopia.

Fast forward to 2021 as Sifan Hassan wrote history at the Tokyo Olympics. The 28-year-old brought to the Netherlands the first gold medals in athletics in almost three decades, winning the 10,000 and 5,000m races and bronze in the 1,500m, despite of a leg injury.

With her podium feats, Hassan is the first athlete to win medals for a triple in distance events at the same Olympics since the indefatigable Czech Emil Zatopek's golds in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon in 1952.

At the closing ceremony of the Olympics, she was given the honour of carrying the flag of the country in which she arrived 13 years ago as an asylum seeker.

Ethiopians in diaspora react

Hassan’s success in Tokyo comes as her country of birth continues to suffer from an escalating armed conflict in the Tigray region, in addition to the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Emanuela Isac, of the Netherlands-based Ethiopian Professionals Network, there was a unified feeling among the Ethiopian diaspora communities with the accomplishment showing “how one can overcome all the challenging obstacles that life brings”.

For Ms Isac, seeing Hassan fall and get back up again in the last lap of the 1,500m heat was a strong representation of the willpower of the African community in diaspora. “[For] a lot of people who have had similar experiences as Hassan with being refugees, it was very symbolic,” she said.

In 2008, Hassan arrived in the Netherlands on her own as an asylum seeker. Little is known about her life in Ethiopia and what compelled her mother to send the teenager on the long journey.

For the first eight months, Hassan stayed at a refugee centre for minors in the north of the country. She has said that she cried every night there, comparing it to a prison.

“A fabulous mindset”

The foundation looking after Hassan moved her to the city of Leeuwarden, where she lived in a house with other girls. When she revealed that she had an ambition to be a runner, one of the attendants introduced her to the Lionitas athletics club in the city. There, she met Yke Schouwstra, a middle-distance athlete who had worked with young refugees before and became her trainer.

Schouwstra quickly noticed Hassan’s talent, and says that she lent the then 15-year-old spikes and kit because she couldn’t afford her own.

In 2011, Hassan was moved to the city of Eindhoven, enjoying the company of a small Ethiopian community. She met Ton van Hoesel in her school, who would become her coach for two years.

“When she came to us, she was a junior,” Van Hoesel says. “She was friendly and a little bit shy. She had a tiny room that she paid too much for and had almost nothing beside a mattress and some clothes. On the wall, she hung a textile bearing the image of the Kaaba.”

In Eindhoven, she trained with Dutch champions. According to Van Hoesel, Hassan not only had a “fantastic” running style, but also a “fabulous” mindset, and was already talking about participating in the Olympics.

“I had to be careful because she wanted to do too much, but she was young and I didn’t want her to get injured,” he says.

This was a difficult task sometimes, he adds, because of Hassan’s “quite strong” personality.

He remembers how in 2011 she wanted to run a half marathon in Eindhoven despite not having been trained for it. “I told her OK but do not start too fanatically because you might get injured. Well, she won the race!” Van Hoesel laughs as he recalls Hassan's first major victory as a runner.

Jos Hermens, a Dutch former long-distance runner and now Hassan’s manager, describes her as “an incredible role model for those who came to the Netherlands to make a better life”. “She is a very principled Muslim,” Hermens says.

Hassan’s trainers say the athlete's daily schedule always includes the five prayers. After winning the first of her gold medals in Tokyo, she posted a picture of herself holding the Dutch flag and commented “Alhamdulillah Rabbil Alamin!”, an Arabic phrase expressing gratitude to God.

“The way she is behaving and standing in life is a very nice and wonderful example of how you can put religion together with high performance, hard training and discipline,” Hermens adds.

A prejudice towards athletes?

Dr Ayalew Kassahun, a Dutch Ethiopian researcher and lecturer at the Wageningen University, shares the feelings of pride in Hassan’s accomplishment.

He argues, however, that the support that her ambitions were met with in the Netherlands has much to do with her being an athlete, and not just her discipline.

“Somehow, there is this image that if you’re an African sportsperson, the doors are open for you,” says Mr Kassahun, who is also a goodwill ambassador for the International Organisation for Migration in the Netherlands.

“Sifan is a good runner, but I can imagine that she was surrounded by a very welcoming environment when participating in athletics because of this mentality.”

According to the assistant professor, who himself emigrated to the Netherlands in 1993, many Ethiopians who choose other professions can be given fewer opportunities, despite being hardworking and disciplined.

“When I joined the university, it was not as easy as it is for [Hassan], because people had no experience of an African teaching at a Dutch university,” Dr Kassahun says.

He is optimistic, however, that with more professionals coming from Africa, the image of successful Africans in the fields of academia, engineering and similar domains is bound to become more familiar in Europe.

Going global with a Dutch passport

After Eindhoven, Hassan moved to Arnhem, a city in the east of the country where she joined the Papendal national training centre for top athletes. In 2013, she obtained a Dutch passport and has been competing internationally for the Netherlands since.

Her first Olympic event was in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. When she finished the 1,500m in fifth place, she knew that she had to take a new direction in her athletics career.

“We organised a deal for her to go to the US to get better training and better circumstances with the Nike Oregon Project,” says Hermens. “She trained near Nike's campus in Beaverton, Oregon, where they have very good scientists, coaches, physicians and gym trainers.”

Hassan has been training with Nike mainly in the US since, even after the Nike Oregon Project shut down in 2019 when track coach Alberto Salazar was barred from the sport of distance running for doping violations.

At the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, she was crowned world champion twice, in the 1,500m and 10,000m, and was the star of Team Orange – and arguably the Games as a whole – in Tokyo.

Eyes on Paris 2024

Hassan, who thrives on stretching herself, chose while in Tokyo to run in three races instead of two – specifically the rare, if not unprecedented, 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m combination. “I just want to challenge myself, otherwise I find it boring. One distance is nothing, so I just wanted to try it,” she said when asked about her last-minute decision.

According to Hassan’s former trainer, Van Hoesel, her body is now overtasked and requires one or two months of rest. Taking a break, however, doesn’t seem high on the athlete’s agenda. She is already planning to run in the Diamond League in the US on August 21.

With the Paris Olympics less than three years away, how many more Olympic feats still lie ahead in the career of this history-making athlete? It depends on how careful she and those around her are, says Van Hoesel, “because you cannot run fast the whole year”.

Updated: August 11th 2021, 6:28 PM
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