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The Two Fastest 10,000m Runners of All Time Will Square Off in Tokyo Olympics Race

Sifan Hassan is scheduled to complete her triple distance attempt. The grand finale Tokyo Olympics? The 10,000m.

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The 10,000 meters 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 runners 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 one 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

The clash awaiting on the final night of track action on Saturday at 6:45 a.m. Eastern might be even more anticipated, 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 (29:01.03).

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 1500 meters, where she won bronze, and two in the 5,000 meters, where she took gold.

A fall in her 1500-meter heat, 12 hours before the 5,000-meter final, had Hassan 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 5,000-meter final. “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.”

In the 1500 meters, she led early, trying to take the kick out of rival Faith Kipyegon’s legs, but the Kenyan stayed with her and pulled away expertly with 200 meters to go. Britain’s Laura Muir also caught Hassan for silver. So Hassan’s chance for triple gold is lost, but she still has an opportunity tie with legend Tirunesh Dibaba for the 5,000-meter/10,000-meter double, and make history with three medals in the distance events, even if one is a different color.

“I am very happy with my race,” she said on Friday. “I tried my best, but I couldn’t do more than this. I think, for me, the third place is good. There was a lot of wind at the stadium today and that is what made it difficult for me. I can’t do anything about that, I just didn’t have any more strength.”

The 10,000-meter 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 set the 10,000-meter world record in Hengelo in early June with a stunning 29:06.82, only for Gidey to emerge two days later and set 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 Chapel Hill, 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 5,000 meters 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 race 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.

Will Hassan still have the legs to hold on and release her killer kick? “Don’t forget I ran lots of kilometers already at this tournament,” she said after the 1500 meter final. “Especially the effort it took after my fall (in Monday’s race) had a lot of impact on me. Ever since that moment I feel super tired. The last couple of days have been very stressful, and it has taken lots of energy from me.”

RELATED: Emily Sisson is Ready to Take the Heat in the Tokyo Olympic 10,000 Meters

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 Team USA’s 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.

Catch all the action at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, August 7.