For the Dutch, it was the ‘national fall down day’

A storm-hit day in Budapest was meant to culminate into a glory-kissed night for the Netherlands at the 2023 World Athletics Championships. Instead, it all came crashing down.

Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan and Britain’s Katie Snowden react after the women’s 1500m semi-final during the World Athletics Championships(AFP)

“Maybe it’s national fall down day,” Sifan Hassan joked.

Hassan and Femke Bol, two Dutch showstoppers with four Olympic and six Worlds medals between them, stumbled being within touching distance of a medal. Both tripped within a span of an hour of the opening night’s showpiece finals featuring the women’s 10,000m and mixed 4x400m relay. The former a few metres away from the finish line. The latter a few steps away.

Quite often, elite sport presents moments where heartbreaks are as deeply etched in memories as triumphs. Recall the 2019 men’s Wimbledon final and you’ll talk as much about Roger Federer’s two fluffed match points as about Novak Djokovic’s 16th major title. Recall the 2019 50-overs World Cup final and it is as much about England’s miracle as it is about New Zealand’s misery.

Add the 2023 World Athletics Championships women’s 10,000m and mixed 4x400m relay finals to that. Records will give their due to Gudaf Tsegay and the record-breaking American quartet of Ryan Willie, Rosey Effiong, Justin Robinson and Alexis Holmes. Yet a 11th-place finish and a Did Not Finish, both victims of a dramatic fall, stand tall in those events.

Hassan, the Ethiopian-born Dutch runner, has for long flirted with the boundaries of improbable. Attempting a 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m sweep in the same Olympics, for instance; she eventually settled for the 1,500 bronze at the Tokyo Games apart from winning the other two.

The 30-year-old was out to do the same at the Budapest Worlds, and for much of the 10,000m final she looked on course. She stayed with the pack and within the range of her rivals, Ethiopians Tsegay and Letesenbet Gidey. At the bell for the concluding 400m, Hassan took off and broke away for the lead through the final bend. Hassan frequently lookedover her shoulder on the home straight, where Tsegay hovered on her right. As Hassan’s right arm brushed Tsegay’s chest, Hassan, stretching every ounce of her drained muscles, fell metres away from where she hoped to stop.

The slight contact made her lose her balance, Hassan said. Tsegay, the 5,000m Tokyo bronze medallist, kept going, leading an Ethiopian 1-2-3 with a time of 31:27.18. Defending champion Gidey, the silver medallist (31:28.16), went back to help Hassan walk over the finish line. From being seconds away from a medal, Hassan ended 11th at 31:53.35.

Literally steps away from a medal was Bol. The 400m hurdles Tokyo Games bronze medallist was up against Holmes in the Dutch-American mixed 4x400m relay battle. Bol nudged ahead even as the US anchor was fast catching up on the straight. As Holmes closed in, Bol stumbled, hitting her head against the track. Three steps on, Holmes crossed the finish line for a world record time of 3:08.80. Bol got up and took a couple of steps to get across the line in third place. But without her baton in tow, the Dutch team was disqualified.

Bol stood hiding her face, the twin stumbles and the spectacle having lit up the Worlds.

“Never seen anything like this in all my years in this sport! Two Dutch athletes fall 5 meters from winning gold. One immediately after the other! Crazy!” American sprint star Michael Johnson wrote on X.

Both falls had subtle differences — one had visible contact among the competitors while the other did not — with one key overriding factor: the presence of a looming figure threatening to sneak ahead. That’s where Tsegay and Holmes, both playing catch up in the final seconds and winning, had a towering role in the tumbles.

“I was controlling. I think maybe in the last 20 meters, we touched each other and I lost balance and fell down,” Hassan said.

“I just couldn’t hit my stride like I normally do and I think I cramped up and I felt someone next to me,” Bol said. “And then, I was on the ground.”

They will soon be up and running again. Both Hassan (5,000m, 1500m) and Bol (400m hurdles) still have medals to win at these Worlds. While Bol will have a day’s rest before her heats on Monday, Hassan, her bloodied elbow from the fall bandaged, turned up for the 1,500m semifinal on Sunday and sealed her final spot with a season best 3:55.48.

“I do not think I am injured,” she said on Saturday. “My hand is OK but the knee needs to be checked. Hopefully, all is good.”

Hopefully, all the falling is done with too.

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