Mo Farah: Britain’s Great Sportsperson

Mo Farah

A couple of weekends ago, on 21 February at the Birmingham Indoor Grand Prix, Mo Farah broke the world record for the indoor two mile. This came on the back of a week-long quarrel, played out over Twitter, between Farah and his long-distance running compatriot Andy Vernon. Vernon – who Farah beat into second place in the 10,000 metres at last year’s European Championships, Vernon’s best result at a major championships to date – had described Farah’s impending field at Birmingham as a ‘joke’.

After belittling comments back and forth, Farah argued that his upset with Vernon stemmed from a comment Vernon made in the aftermath to last year’s European Championships 10,000 metres final. Vernon apparently stated that he, rather than Farah, was the rightful winner of the gold medal, implying that Farah cannot be considered properly European. Farah was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and moved to Britain when he was eight to live in London with his British father.

Vernon has argued vehemently in response that Farah has made an ‘outrageous misrepresentation of the chat’, calling Farah’s interpretation ‘complete lies’. Yet he admits he did make such a remark – only for him it was ‘tongue-in-cheek’, amounting to nothing more than a light-hearted joke. But it is hard to see what, especially in the immediate aftermath of a race, is funny about Vernon’s comment: an insidious remark that, whatever its wider connotations, attempts to demean another person’s victory. Both athletes accept, with different slants, that they have never been good friends.

Vernon has developed a reputation for teasing and antagonising other athletes, with Lynsey Sharp referring to him as ‘Andy Vermin’ after a Twitter spat last summer. Sharp won a silver medal in the 800 metres at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, hours after being in hospital on a drip following a sudden bout of vomiting. Vernon took to Twitter to lament her self-publicising, and to suggest that she had utilised the drip to win her medal.

In attaining his first world record, Farah beat by almost a second the previous indoor two mile best set by Kenenisa Bekele at the same meet in 2008. Bekele’s time then was 8:04.35; while Farah’s new record stands at 8:03.40. Throughout its long history the two mile has always been an exhibition event, often targeted by would-be record breakers and race promoters. In its heyday, the outdoor two mile world record was broken in turn by two Britons: Brendan Foster in August 1973 and Steve Ovett in September 1978. Today, it is raced so rarely outdoors that the IAAF no longer keep an official world record for the distance; but the best ever time in the outdoor event remains the 7:58.61 ran by Kenya’s Daniel Komen in July 1997.

The outdoor world records in the two distances at which Farah specialises – the 5,000 metres and the 10,000 metres – are both held by Bekele. In the 5,000 metres, the record stands at 12:37.35, a time Bekele set at the end of May 2004. In the 10,000 metres, Bekele’s record time is 26.17.53, which he ran in August 2005. On both occasions, Bekele broke the previous record set by Haile Gebrselassie in June 1998. Records in the long distance events are rarely challenged, especially at major championships where pacemakers are not a factor and times are of secondary importance. Asked about challenging Bekele’s records this summer, Farah responded ‘I don’t rule it out. But the world championships is the priority’. This year’s World Championships in Athletics will be held in Beijing, 22-30 August.

Farah’s indoor world record only bolsters his already compelling claim upon the title of Britain’s greatest competing sportsperson. Perhaps, looking round, he has few serious challengers. Football remains the nation’s most popular sport, but football at the top level in England is increasingly a dead end. The period from the middle of the last decade, when English clubs regularly competed en masse towards the closing stages of the Champions League, is decidedly over: the Premier League has been surpassed by Spain’s La Liga when it comes to the quality of its top teams; while it is bettered by many other leagues besides – but most notably the Bundesliga – when it comes to the entertainment value of its football, and the relationship between clubs and fans.

Beyond the top seven sides in the Premier League today, the football on display is a rank joke. Even the top four sees a stuttering Manchester City as Chelsea’s only title challengers; and a woeful Manchester United side currently on course for a place in the Champions League. With the money in the game utterly stultifying any sense of fun or competition, for most fans the highlights of recent seasons have been Sergio Aguero’s late goal in 2012 to deny Manchester United yet another Premier League crown; and Steven Gerrard’s hilarious slip which proved ruinous to his beloved Liverpool’s title chances last season.

To watch Wayne Rooney – England’s most valued footballer, often touted as the only English player worthy of the appellation ‘world class’ – on the football pitch is to watch a man attached for ninety minutes to the hip of a referee, as he swearingly and cheatingly berates the official in an endeavour to win unwarranted decisions for his side. In this Rooney has emerged as the true successor to the equally loathsome Ryan Giggs. On those rare occasions where he detaches himself, he can still make the odd surging run, and he remains sharp in the opposition penalty area. But his talent increasingly resolves itself into one trick: a fruitless lofted pass from the centre of the pitch to the right wing.

Rugby fans seem united in mourning the current state of the game, with the view that professionalism and negative tactics have removed from the sport all flair and excitement. England’s cricketers continue to be humiliated at the ongoing Cricket World Cup; although the feud between English cricket and Kevin Pietersen, its former star, continues to garner as many headlines. At least Rory McIlroy helps to sustain interest in golf, especially after a magnificent 2014 saw him win two majors.

In boxing, Carl Froch is still regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world; Tyson Fury has worked himself into a position as mandatory challenger for Wladimir Klitschko’s WBO world title belt; and at the lower weights Amir Khan, Kell Brook, and Carl Frampton are among the elite. Still, the sport has nothing like the popularity it enjoyed in the 1990s; and more recent farces involving David Haye, Audley Harrison, and Dereck Chisora have done nothing to restore its reputation. Other sports struggle for an audience beyond the Olympic Games; while the status of Formula 1, snooker, darts – and especially dressage and other horsey-related activities – as sports at all is dubious at best.

This leaves Andy Murray as Farah’s closest contemporary when it comes to British sporting greatness. Competing in what is arguably the sport’s strongest era, Murray’s sterling year between 2012 and 2013 saw him first take gold against Roger Federer at London 2012, before winning his first Grand Slam at the US Open in September. This made Murray the first British player since 1977, and the first British male since 1936 – therefore the first in the Open Era – to win a Grand Slam singles title. Then in 2013 he beat Novak Djokovic in a second Grand Slam final to win at Wimbledon. Fittingly, at the end of 2013, Murray was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year. After returning from back surgery and struggling for form through 2014, Murray reached his fourth Australian Open final at the end of January; while in the women’s game, as Laura Robson recuperates from injury, Heather Watson continues to make strides after winning her second career WTA title.

Despite his performance at London 2012 – becoming the first Briton and only the fifth man in history to double up for Olympic golds at the 5,000 and 10,000 metres – Mo Farah did not finish in the top three in the voting for 2012’s Sports Personality of the Year. Instead, the award was won by Bradley Wiggins, with Jessica Ennis in second and Andy Murray third. And there is a sense to which Farah does not get the acclaim he deserves among the British public. Perhaps this owes something to race, but more clearly there seems an unjustified distrust of his character, based on the time he spends outside of the UK, and on his willingness – in the context of a sport not well remunerated – to make a living through self-promotion, advertising, and selectively choosing his appearances. For a double Olympic and three-time World champion, the criticism of his failure to appear at last year’s Commonwealths was absurd.

Even after Paula Radcliffe’s achievements on the track and in the marathon, and Farah’s consistent performances over a number of seasons, it is true that distance running has a less tangible appeal than cycling, for instance – boosted enormously by triumphant Brits on the road and on the track. While the successes of Wiggins, Froome, and Cavendish, and Hoy, Pendleton, and Trott, have seen the middle classes surge to squeeze into lycra and barrel about Britain’s roads – doing nothing whatsoever towards the need for improved cycle routes within cities, and for cycling to become a key component of ordinary commutes and everyday life – there is not the same equation between jogging and joggers and long-distance athletes. Aside from winning Sports Personality of the Year on the back of becoming Britain’s first Tour de France winner, Wiggins was knighted for his accomplishment, while Farah was given only a CBE. Wiggins certainly has no more personality than Farah; although culturally Britain can sometimes seem perpetually stuck in the era of Britpop, especially if you venture out into the activityless wasteland of a city centre weekend night. And Farah competes, after all, in a sport far less discredited than stage cycling.

In May 1954, Roger Bannister became the first man to complete a sub-four-minute mile. From the end of the 1970s through the middle of the 1980s, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett traded the world record over the distance, before Steve Cram set what is still the best time for the mile by a European (the world record for the mile now belongs to Hicham El Guerrouj). Over the same period, Coe, Ovett three times, then Cram set new world records in the 1500 metres. Farah has now eclipsed them all with a 1500 metres time of 3:28.81. The world record Coe set in the 800 metres of 1:41.73, in Florence in June 1981, makes him to this day the joint-third fastest man of all time over that distance.

Farah’s indoor world record is the first world record by a British male distance runner since Peter Elliott set a 1500 metres indoor record in 1990. Outdoors, for eleven years between 1993 and 2004, Colin Jackson held the world record for the 110 metre hurdles; and Jonathan Edwards’ triple jump record of 18.29 metres, set in Gothenburg at the World Championships in 1995, shows no sign of being surpassed. Before Farah, and beyond Paula Radcliffe’s marathon records, the last world record set by a British athlete was Ashia Hansen’s leap of 15.16 metres in the indoor triple jump in Valencia, in February 1998.

Mo Farah’s gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at London 2012 add to golds over the same distances at the World Championships in Moscow in 2013; to a gold over 5,000 metres and a silver over 10,000 in Daegu in 2011; to five golds and a silver at the European Championships; two European Indoor Championships golds; and gold medals in both the European Cross Country and European Team championships. These fourteen senior gold medals in total make him indisputably the most successful British athlete of all time.

Of the four other men who have doubled up for long-distance Olympic golds, there has been Emil Zátopek at Helsinki 1952; Vladimir Kuts at Melbourne 1956; Lasse Virén, who managed it twice, at Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976 (after his Finnish compatriots Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola almost achieved the feat decades prior, dominating long-distance running in the 1920s and exchanging gold and silver medals in the two events at Amsterdam 1928); Miruts Yifter at Moscow 1980; and Bekele at Beijing 2008. With the World Championships in Athletics only founded in 1983, before Farah in 2013, only Bekele – at Berlin 2009 – had attained a double distance gold at a World Championships. So Farah and Bekele are the only men to have achieved a ‘double-double’: double gold medals at both the Olympics and the World Championships. Farah is looking towards the Rio Olympics in 2016, after which he appears to be pondering a fully-fledged switch to the marathon.

The 2015 European Athletics Indoor Championships began in proper in Prague today, after last night’s opening ceremony. The highlight of Friday’s competition has been Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s performance on the way to a gold medal in the women’s pentathlon. Setting a new personal best over the 60 metre hurdles, and managing impressive jumps of 1.95 metres in the high jump (a new championship record) and 6.89 metres in the long jump, Johnson-Thompson ultimately reached a British record of 5,000 points – the second best indoor pentathlon of all time, narrowly missing out on the world record set by Ukraine’s Nataliya Dobrynska in 2012.