For Dutch distance runner Sifan Hassan, the hard part was not surviving a fall to win an Olympic heat in early August, en route to three medals — two of them gold — at the Summer Games in Tokyo.
Nor was it competing in six races covering 24,500 meters over nine days.
The hard part had come 13 years earlier, when she immigrated from her native Ethiopia to The Netherlands.
“I really had an amazing life until I was 14,” the 28-year-old Hassan told reporters in Tokyo. “I was full of play, outside, happy. After 14 I really had difficulty. Life put me down so many times, but I am here today.”
She departed amid ongoing ethnic tensions between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian government, tensions that continue to this day. The Oromo, the nation’s largest ethnic group, have long been oppressed, and have sought to form an independent Oromia. That has often resulted in violence.
“I don’t regret that I got out from that country and I don’t even want to go back again,” she said, according to the BBC. “It’s so painful. It hurts me when I think about it, it’s terrible.”
The larger lesson here is that while it is true that sports can teach us all a great deal about perseverance — something we can apply to everyday life — the opposite is also true: Life provides us with qualities that are valuable in the games we play. Everything we are, and everything we experience, comes out in the heat of competition.
And so it was with Hassan. The Guardian reported that upon immigrating to The Netherlands she made it clear she wanted to run, but at first didn’t have the proper footwear. Once that was provided, she was able to build the foundation for a remarkable career.
“I think all of us, nobody has a perfect life,” she said, again according to The Guardian. “I tell people: ‘When life is hard, you will see yourself like you never imagined before. Never give up.’”
She won the 1,500 and 10,000 meters at the 2019 World Championships, becoming the first runner, male or female, to accomplish that feat in that meet or the Olympics, and in Tokyo set her sights on an unprecedented triple — victories in not only those two events but the 5,000 meters as well.
But with just under a lap to go in her 1,500 heat she tripped over Kenya’s Edinah Jebitok and tumbled to the track, falling hard on her right hip. No matter — Hassan scrambled back to her feet and stormed past the pack to win the heat and move into the semifinals two days later.
But first things first — she had another race, the final of the 5,000, 12 hours after her 1,500 heat. She won that, then went on to qualify for the 1,500 final, in which she finished third. And the following morning she won the 10,000, becoming the first runner to medal in those three events in the same Olympics.
It was remarkable. It was special. And it marked the end of another journey, one that was far longer and far more difficult.