London will be Mo Farah will be an emotional farewell to track running, but Simon Barnes says the gold-medallist will always be a champion
It’s very hard to be very good at sport. But it’s twice as hard again to go one better and take the next step: the one that makes you a champion.
In individual sports, this step is an Everest, and very few people manage it. What’s the difference between the brilliant losing finalist and the champion, between the collector of bronzes and the golden one? It’s a difference you can occasionally read in a single instant. The vignette is not what makes the Everest people special, but it reveals their special nature.
It’s something Clint Eastwood acted brilliantly – and it’s something Mo Farah showed us in the 10,000m at the London Olympic Games on an unforgettable day in 2012 we remember as Super Saturday.
Jessica Ennis had won gold in the heptathlon; Greg Rutherford had won gold in the long jump. And then came Farah. Farah had dwelt long, perhaps too long, in the company of the very good. Some people said he was ready for the Everest step; others that it was forever beyond him.
The 10,000m race began and the Kenyans, running as ever like a band of brothers, sent one of their number to manmark Farah. To get in his way, to disrupt his rhythm, to remind him that he was not wanted in this company.
Farah dropped back half a pace and simply ran round his marker in a few easy strides of absolute confidence. It was a perfectly revealing moment: as Clint said to the bad guys, so Mo said to the Kenyans and everyone else in the race: “I’m faster than you’ll ever live to be.”
With his victory in that race, Farah moved into the rarefied company of the Everest people. He had proved to himself that he was a champion; just as importantly, he had proved it to all his rivals. It was a transition that made him stronger and the others weaker.
The great champions use their status as champions like a performance-enhancing drug: a hidden but not so secret ingredient that gives them a decisive edge. It never shows up on any test or in any other kind of analysis, but in event after event it’s the difference between victory and defeat.
The champions – the long-term, inevitable and serial champions – have something that the rest haven’t: and they have it simply by being a champion.
Farah flaunts both his 5000m and 10000m gold medals on the podium at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
In the Wimbledon men’s singles final recently, Marin Cilic was overwhelmed by the force, the presence, the record of his opponent, and Roger Federer was ruthless in maximising that advantage. In the time of his pomp, few dared even to challenge Tiger Woods. And Farah has used his status as undisputed number one to remain undisputed number one. The opponents get close, but they know they won’t go past once he hits the last lap and makes the jump to light-speed.
As he has become more certain, the others have felt increasing self-doubt: and that has operated as a closed feedback loop. They get close; they back off. Farah has maintained that impossible level for five years. At every major championships we hear that he’s ready to be taken; every time Farah runs away from them all, and in the beauty of that ground-caressing stride there is only despair for those that try to follow.
But this is sport, and sport waits for no one. Every champion knows that one day a champion-in-waiting will emerge. Revel in the champions while you still can: the Everest people are rare indeed.
Commentator and former long-distance runner Brendan Foster recalls how Farah transformed from a nervous newbie to Olympic legend
Mo was always a talented athlete, but he lacked big-race nous. He had the ability to kick at the end, but he’d lose races he should have won. And when he came up against the big boys at the World Championships or the Olympic Games, they ran away from him.
He just wasn’t quick enough or strong enough. But he was able to change both those things. The first was easier: getting up to a level of race fitness which meant he wasn’t struggling to keep up at the bell.
The second came when he worked with his coach Alberto Salazar and changed his running action at the finish. It took them a couple of years. It stopped him from over-striding, to maximise his speed.
Farah celebrates winning gold with silver medalist Galen Rupp of the United States and (centre) coach Alberto Salazar after the Men’s 10,000m Final, London 2012
With that came the next important thing, confidence. He learnt to win, he knew he could win, he knew what his plan was. He had got the physicality right – and that allowed him to get the mental side right.
In the 10,000m at the 2011 World Championships he was beaten into silver-medal place because he mistimed his finish. So now his policy is to sprint from the front with a lap and a half to go. The confidence he has affects his rivals.
Doubling up – running the 5,000m and the 10,000m – is not unusual, and it’s easier than it was: they used to have heats for the 10,000m and sometimes two rounds for the 5,000m.
Mo made a big decision to stick with Salazar, despite the fact he’s a controversial character. It’s worked well for Mo because Salazar is a great attention-to-detail man, while Mo was always happy-go-lucky. It’s all gone to make him one of the all-time great athletes.
Former middle distance runner Steve Cram reveals the physical and mental changes Mo made before picking up a gold medal
He’d dyed his hair red, white and blue for the world junior cross-country championships and he asked me, “Will you interview me if I win?” Later that day he knocked on the door of our commentary position and said, “I’ve come for my interview.”
I said, “Mo, you were 17th. Come back when you win something.” He was a young lad making his way, and my goodness, it was difficult for him to take the next step up.
He shared a house in Teddington, south-west London, with Kenyan runners who’d come to Europe for the summer season. He told me, “All they do is run and eat and sleep. If I want to be the best, that’s what I’ve got to do.”
He improved all right, but at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 he didn’t make the final. I said in commentary that he wasn’t able to compete at world level.
Later that year we spoke at the Great North Run, and he said: “I’ve got to change.”
When you watch on TV you can never see what an athlete gives up in order to be the best. He left his family to train in America in 2009, and he was worried – he’s always been a worrier – that it was all going to be fruitless. That he was going to make these big sacrifices and it would be the same as before. It was a real moment of panic.
But as we know, it has worked out. The next year Mo became the best in Europe and was ready to go to the next level. At London 2012 he had the right weapons: physical strength and a sprint finish.
So he became the maestro, the conductor of the orchestra. When he races, he knows the rest will follow his moves. He’s never the sort to win by miles, it’s always about the last lap, and it’s always victory by a few metres.
I expect him to shift to full-time road racing after the World Championships – and I hope he’ll enjoy his sport more. He’ll be able to run more often, with less pressure. He knows more about winning than any other British athlete: I hope he’ll be able to educate the next generation in that art.
Mo Farah runs in the 10,000m on Friday 4 August (9.20pm BBC1). The 5,000m heats begin on Wednesday 9 August.