Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins. Each time the Olympics comes around, the achievements of this triumvirate of legendary athletes are recalled with an overwhelming wave of pride. On Friday, Sir Bradley Wiggins brought the curtain down on an illustrious career by securing the gold medal which made him the most decorated British Olympian of all time. On account of the number of medals which each possess, this trio of knights of the realm all hold a claim to being the title of the greatest British Olympian of all time.
Now I propose another candidate must be included in that debate. An athlete whose name does not immediately convey his British nationality at first glance but who nonetheless has become a shining exemplar of British excellence and patriotism on the international stage. A man who may not be a “Sir” but surely warrants such a title on account of his exploits on the track. It is high time that the case is made for why Mo Farah is the greatest British Olympian that this country has ever seen.
The aforementioned athletes’ achievements are extraordinary and each of their success owes much to their phenomenal skill, determination to be the best and their all-consuming desire to win. However if one surveys their respective lists of honours, you cannot help but notice the significant contribution of others which has aided their feats. Redgrave’s golds in the coxless pairs and fours stemmed from finding harmony and synchronicity with his crewmates when it mattered. Despite individual glory in kerins and sprints, Hoy and Wiggins benefited from participating in team events during this golden age for British Cycling.
Each of these former Olympians would surely admit that participating in sports surrounded by a squad of teammates and coaches, helped motivate them to push themselves further and improve, thus contributing to their success. In contrast for Mo Farah, the old running adage could not ring more true- “The loneliness of the long distance runner”.
For a middle distance athlete, training entails gruelling, long-distance, high altitude runs alongside torturous speed sessions on the track and punishing hours in the gym. It requires an almost robotic sense of self-discipline and resolve to haul yourself out of bed each day and pound out the miles, with only your own thoughts for company. As an incredulous Usain Bolt once remarked, how can Farah so willingly and happily run 10k as a warmup, training for that very event?
The answer is Farah’s relentless desire to improve and never taking his ability for granted. Sometimes an athlete appears on the scene who blows the competition away with seemingly effortless ease. Think Usain Bolt in Beijing and London, all Michael Phelps throughout his whole career.
For Farah, this was not the case. At his first Olympics in Beijing, he was a very different athlete. Far from the all-conquering athlete he is today, Farah failed to qualify for the 5000m final event. It was this disappointment which brought Farah to the Oregon Project and Alberto Salazar, prompting the overhaul of his training programme which has transformed him into Britain’s greatest ever track athlete.
In a recent documentary, viewers saw Farah’s training programme for themselves. They witnessed how he travelled to remote, training bases, high in the mountains of Ethiopia, leaving behind his family as a sacrifice for optimum training, in which he regularly would run 120 miles a week. It is a given that all top Olympian athletes train hard. However by gaining an insight into the brutal reality of Farah’s mostly solitary regime, bereft of teammates as in cycling or rowing, the mindset of this incredible athlete was illuminated.
As Farah reiterated in the documentary, his fanatical level of training was necessary to be the best, win medals and break records for Britain. Unlike many athletes, Farah enjoys his punishing training regime because he has an unwavering belief in what it has prompted him to achieve. Some may question how he can do this at the expense of being absent from his family for long periods of time, interaction being restricted to Skype sessions. Ye this is the stark reality for a top athlete who wants to remain at the summit.
Farah’s sacrifice is symbolic of his steely resolve, a characteristic which has defined his career and was magnificently evident in his latest triumph. For many, nothing will ever compare to that majestic 10,000 metres win he achieved on “Super Saturday” at London 2012. However for me, his win in the 10,000m on Sunday was even more superlative.
As Steve Cram once joked, such is the brilliance of Mo Farah, he could fall in a race and still go on to win. In this race, this unlikely scenario was foisted upon the athlete. Around the 11 minute mark, Farah uncharacteristically was caught daydreaming and tripped over the legs of his training partner, Galen Rupp. Immediately, questions sprung to mind for fans; was Farah’s concentration where it should be? Could he recover his momentum? Most importantly, was he injured?
Unruffled and unfazed, the British hero sprang back to his feet and a few laps later, he had returned to his natural habitat amongst the leading pack. A fall which may have been fatal for an inferior, less determined athlete was instantly put aside as the Olympic champion refocused on defending his title.
In our generation of decreasing attention spans, the 10,000 metres has been accused of being too lengthy to fixate viewers. I counter such a ridiculous accusation by imploring viewers to watch Farah during this race. His metronomic pace, his instantaneous recovery, his slow advance up the field and his trademark big finish. It was captivating, compelling viewing.
With one lap to go and Farah slotted in second place, the Kenyan Tanui blinked first and began his charge in the hope of claiming victory. With 400m to go, Farah responded by commencing his legendary “double kick”, the turn of pace which has won him so many medals throughout his career.
With 100 metres to go, Farah sprinted away from Tanui and provided the sight which the nation had hoped for (and expected). As he crossed the line, Mo Farah became the first British athlete to win three Olympic Gold medals. Collapsing to the floor in exhaustion and kissing the ground in gratitude before casually checking his slightly grazed shoulder, the only evidence of a moment where this success was ever in doubt, Farah’s place in the annals of history alongside the middle distance greats of Zapotek, Viren, Gebrselaisse and Bekele was sealed.
Farah’s post-race interview reinforced my opinion that he is Britain’s greatest ever Olympian. Clearly emotional and still attempting to comprehend what he had achieved, the defending Olympic champion was on the verge of tears, overjoyed that all of his training had made this possible and dedicating his medals to his children.
For Farah, this race was “important to make my country proud and make history”. A Somali born migrant, British Muslim draped in a Union Jack flag, Farah not only stood there as a wonderful athlete but also a beacon for multicultural Britain, a concept which has sadly been eroded during a summer of discontent.
Maybe it is because I am a mediocre, long distance runner who is part of a small number who appreciate an athletic discipline which many regard as joylessm arduous and an exercise in prolonged agony. Sprinters like Bolt and swimmers like Phelps may resemble comic book superheroes on account of their exploits on the track and in the pool. However for me, Farah’s bottomless reserves of determination, hard work and relentless desire to train and improve, apparent in every race he runs, makes Mo Farah the greatest British athlete of all time.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons