Modern Dutch heroes: Sifan Hassan

Every country has its heroes – people who have made such an impact on the country that their influence and legacy go beyond themselves. Of course there is the father of the Netherlands, William of Orange; wartime monarch, Queen Wilhelmina, and incomparable troubled artist, Vincent van Gogh, who are world-renowned heroes of the Netherlands. But even today there are people making such an impact that they are like modern-day, living heroes destined for enduring legendary status. One such person is middle- and long-distance runner Sifan Hassan.

For those of you who caught the 2020 summer Olympic games in Tokyo and subsequent reporting, Sifan Hassan was the golden athlete for the Netherlands – literally – winning the gold medal in both the 1500 meter and 10,000 meter races, as well as bronze on the 5000. This achievement, plus the two gold medals in the world championship in 2019 in Doha, elevated this Ethiopian-born athlete to being the only runner – male or female – to have won two of the middle- and long-distance categories in a single world championship or Olympics. Her Dutch and European medals, records and accolades are far too many to mention here, and to top it all off, Hassan is the current world record holder for the women’s mile, having broken a 23-year-old record.

Hassan’s two gold medals in the pinnacle events of Olympic track and field won the hearts of the millions of Dutch people and captured the eye of the world as they watched her perform. So amazing is her running, that when she took a fall at the beginning of the qualifying heats for the 1500 meter race, she was able to not only get up but was able to turn on the jets in her legs to make up over 20 meters lost and win her heat. It’s a feat that can only be described as a miracle, even at the Olympics! Seriously, do a search for ‘Sifan Hassan Tokyo 1500 meter fall’ to see the replay!

On her athleticism alone, Sifan Hassan is a modern-day hero. Her jaw-dropping speed and perseverance put her in a class of her own. Her medals, accolades and records at every level of official competition have solidified her in the sporting history books. And her almost-shy, humble demeanor with a beaming smile of pride won over the hearts of her fellow Dutch citizens, who love their heroes – especially their sporting heroes – when she made her rounds on the heavily-watched Dutch evening TV talk shows.

But I think that Sifan will be a hero beyond her athletic accolades. She most definitely will be a role model to many track and field dreamers – here in the Netherlands and in her birth country, Ethiopia – but also a role model to many new immigrants coming into the country. She moved here when she was 15 and received Dutch citizenship five years later – which means she learned Dutch and was fully integrated into daily life in the Netherlands, including learning a new language with a new alphabet. And she only began to run when she started her nursing studies, aged 20. Three years later she made her debut on the European competitive stage in Belgium.

For newcomers to the Netherlands, especially from countries and world regions that have different cultures, integration into a new culture can be daunting. Seeing a person who was once an immigrant integrate into a new foreign culture and succeed at such a level must be incredibly inspiring for newly arriving refugees and foreigners to the Netherlands. She is an incredible inspiration for me – and I moved to the Netherlands because I wanted to, not because I had to flee my home country. People like Sifan Hassan will inspire people beyond what they themselves do – for Sifan, this is running, but she will be a role model for many more people beyond our future track and field stars.

Written by Marla Thomson