The golden hat-trick is dead. Long live the defending champion. A stunning run from Faith Kipyegon of Kenya saw her reclaim the 1500m title she first picked up in Rio 2016, skewering Sifan Hassan’s hopes of winning three golds in Tokyo.
With the 5,000m gold secured, Hassan was looking tick off this second before going on to the 10,000m final on Saturday. But not only was the 28-year-old from the Netherlands beaten to the finish line by Kipyegon, silver was ripped from her grasp by Great Britain’s Laura Muir, who put in the best race of her career to finally put her world event hex to rest.
After dotting around fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh across World Championships and the 2016 Olympic Games, she finally has her podium finish. Not just that, a second-placed finish.
And a British record, too. Her 3:54.50 was remarkable for its consistency: always up at the business end of this race, maintaining sight of those in front, and never giving a second thought to those behind.
“I’ve been fourth, fifth twice, sixth and seventh at global champs every year since 2015,” she said after the race, drained of energy but full of joy and the realisation that she has what it takes to hold her own at this level. “I’ve got a silver and a British record as well.”
“It felt like 3:54 because it was hurting – that last 100m I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared that someone was going to pass me and I was going to come fourth. I just gave it absolutely everything and I was tightening up so bad but I thought keep pushing.”
This was always going to be the toughest of Hassan’s three. Not only was this her fifth race in eight days, including two 1,500m heats, but this was the most competitive field she would have to beat.
The standout was Kipyegon, whose time of 3:56.80 in her semi-final was faster than nine of the 13 personal bests. And no one on the start line had run quicker than her overall quickest time of 3:51.07, which was notched last month. For all the talk around Hassan , who beat the Kenyan in Doha to win the 2019 World Championships, Kipyegon was the runner in form and favourite for this race.
Muir was gunning for her, too. A superior and more tactically sound iteration of the athlete who finished 7th in this event five years ago. Unlike Hassan, she decided to narrow her focus, forgoing the chance to run the 800 to give her all in what she regarded as her primary suit. And therefore, her best hope of a medal.
Beyond them were the likes of Ethiopia’s Freweyni Hailu, USA’s Elle Purrier St. Pierre, Gabriela Debues-Stafford of Canada. Each armed with their own combinations of endurance, speed and kicks. Thus, the worry was not just Hassan’s. In the current era of women’s middle distance, 800m included, everyone has to look over their shoulder.
Hassan hit the front early, with Kipyegon behind, so close that it seemed she didn’t trust the Dutch runner or feel comfortable not being within kicking distance of her. That made sense a little later on.
Laura Muir celebrates after winning the silver medal
Muir, meanwhile, was steady in third, relinquishing the position momentarily when Debues-Stafford decided to make a move with two laps to go. But the Scot had a plan: one based on utilising her superior strength and athleticism built up through gruelling new training sessions to give her all the tools for in-race shifts like this.
The front six broke away with 600m to go. Then the front four form their own cabal, before Kipyegon stepped up a gear to really drive home the fatigue on Hassan.
It was at this point that Muir made a choice. She could have coasted to bronze, but instead saw an opportunity to go one better. As Hassan was left behind in second, Muir bounded beyond her bumping her to the lowest step of the podium. Still, she did not hold back, maintaining pace and form for the last 100m to make it absolutely sure before falling to the floor exhausted.
It took a while for her to sit up, enough time that there was a bit of concern from the sidelines. Thankfully, she was simply catching her breath: each inhalation allowing her to compute what she had just done.
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