Kenya, January 2012. In a lush, green garden at the High Altitude Training Centre at Iten, Mo Farah plants his sinewy frame on a wooden chair, ready for his latest interview. The demands on his time have multiplied in keeping with his rate of success.
The cameraman asks each of us to say a few words so he can moderate the quality of the sound. I go first. Farah interrupts.
“Ah, I know that voice… ‘And it’s gold for Mo Farah’.” He repeats the closing stages of my Radio 5 Live commentary on the 5000m final at last year’s World Championships in South Korea. It’s the greatest moment in Farah’s career to date.
But maybe there’s more to come. On the track, the 10,000m is the first of the men’s gold medal events to be decided at London 2012. Farah will line up as one of the men to beat, if not the favourite. For 25 laps (and around 27 minutes), even couch potatoes will sit up straight.
Farah took silver over the distance at the World Championships, a week before returning to kidnap the glory at the shorter trip. And how his status has mushroomed since.
On his first appearance of this Olympic year, an indoor race in Glasgow last month, Farah was greeted with a level of noise that threatened the foundations of the Kelvin Hall. When he crossed the winning line, those of us lucky enough to be in the press box wondered aloud: “If this is the clamour generated by 3,000 people in Glasgow in January, what on earth…?”
Come Games time, it’s my view that Farah will be up there with the hottest of tickets, as big a draw in Britain as Usain Bolt. Both are managed by Ricky Simms, who talks in terms of two of a kind: “They both smile while they work, and they’re hard not to like. It’s great to have athletes who are winning and crowd-friendly, who’ll talk to fans and sign autographs.”
Farah’s first final at the Olympics is scheduled for 4 August, 24 hours before the 100m. And if he tries to complete the long-distance double, he will make three appearances in the Olympic Stadium in seven days. Farah fever will take hold. And it is likely to be contagious.
His Olympic preparations continue on Saturday at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena, where he’s favoured to break the ten-year- old British record over two miles in the day’s final race. “Birmingham’s a special place to me,” he said on signing up for the meeting. “I’ve competed there so often and I’ve had some great races.”
In gruelling economic times, when the perception prevails that bonuses for failure are all too commonplace, Farah is thriving in a sporting meritocracy. Rewards in his events are directly related to hard graft. In Kenya, Farah lived and trained like the locals. “They eat, sleep and run – nothing else.”
When I was there, Sunday was his rest day. But he still ran 20 miles – even if it was at a (relatively) gentle pace! As Ian Stewart, head of endurance at UK Athletics, says: “Long-distance runners are like boxers. They know that what they do involves certain pain.”
Farah has demonstrated how he is prepared to make sacrifices off the track, too. A year ago, he relocated his family (wife Tania and young daughter Rihanna) to Portland, in Oregon. Having won the long-distance double at the European Championships in Barcelona in 2010, he decided he needed an extra injection of expertise to help him repeat those successes on the global stage.
Enter Alberto Salazar, a Cuban-born American with a reputation for alchemy and the guile to generate tiny percentages of improvement. At the highest level, such advances can be crucial. While gold medals are won on the track, they are forged on the trails and the hills far away from the cameras and the commentators.
And one single week in August could alter how he is remembered for ever. No British athlete has ever won the 5000m or 10,000m at the Olympics. Farah could take both.
In sport, we all own a licence to dream. “And it’s gold for Mo Farah…”
Mike Costello is BBC Radio 5 Live’s athletics correspondent
Athletics: Grand Prix Meeting is today at 1pm on BBC1 (4pm in Wales)
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 14 February 2012