Walker The Talker: Mo Farah Looks To Turn Back The Clock In Race For Tokyo Qualification

At Friday night's British Championships curtain raiser in Manchester, Mo Farah will battle to qualify for Tokyo 2020
12:04, 24 Jun 2021

Great champions don’t last forever, that’s why their periods of dominance are so enthralling to watch at the time. In the back of your mind you are aware that you’re witnessing a performance or a team you will still be talking about decades down the line.

Ask anyone who was there for Super Saturday in London 2012. An incredible 45 minutes which will long linger in the memory of every single British athletics fan there in the stadium.

Jessica Ennis-Hill, the poster girl of the games (whose image had been cleverly cultivated in the fields around Heathrow for arriving flights) delivered first in the heptathlon. An iconic moment for the woman who simply didn’t put a foot wrong from the first event in which she scorched to an incredible time of 12.54 in the 100m hurdles (a time which would have been good enough for fourth in the individual final at the same games).

Then came Greg Rutherford in the long jump. An athlete who always managed to get the best out of himself on the big occasion, he delivered 8.31m in the fourth round and hung on to become Great Britain’s first male Olympic long jump champion since Lynn Davies beat defending champion Ralph Boston in the unusually blustery conditions of Tokyo in 1964.

And the third member in that Saturday night triumvirate of excellence? Mo Farah of course.

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A man who was about to start a journey into Olympic folklore. Despite not even making the 5,000m final in Beijing four years earlier, Farah arrived in London as reigning world champion over 5,000m and the silver medallist in the 10,000m the previous year in Daegu.

The nature of the 10,000m means that in a great race the sense of expectation and noise gradually rises hand in hand and such was the case nine years ago in the Olympic stadium. The crescendo which greeted Farah in the closing stages was so loud that I’m surprised any of them could hear the bell to signal the last lap.

What followed was to become a familiar sight at major championships for the next six years; Farah flat out in front in the finishing straight, eyeballs bulging, arms outstretched, basking in the adulation of a crowd and enjoying every single stride as the former Feltham community college pupil in Hounslow stormed to a moment of history.

That 10,000m gold was the first of his four Olympic titles and the first of five global golds over the iconic distance (with world 10,000m golds coming in Moscow 2013, Beijing 2015 and London 2017).

Then came his move from track to road, which brought mixed results. His best outing was undoubtedly an excellent victory in Chicago 2018 with the then European record 2.05.11. But he endured tough days on the roads of major cities as well. Third was his best finish in the London Marathon the following year (in a very respectable but unspectacular 2.06) whilst his attempted title defence in Chicago ended up with a 2.09 and a despondent eighth-place finish.  

It was always going to be a very big ask for Farah to replicate his global dominance on the track over 26.2 miles. Especially in the era of Eliud Kipchoge, without doubt the greatest of all time. 

That perhaps was in his mind when he decided to have one more go on the surface which brought his finest victories. He acknowledged that stepping back down in distance at the age of 37 was going to be difficult. Especially as the man who picked up silver behind him in London 2017, Joshua Cheptegei, had lowered the world record to an eye watering 26.11 in Valencia last October (Whatever anyone says about Wavelight technology or the new shoes, that night in Spain was one of the most gripping races I have ever commentated on live).  

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Perhaps the carrot for Farah isn’t just the satisfaction and potential pride of knowing he can mix it with the best once again and bow out on a high - there’s also the lure of history. 

The legendary Finn Lasse Viren did the 5,000m and 10,000m double in 1972 and 1976, but when he attempted the 10,000m hattrick in Moscow in 1980 he finished fifth. 24 years later Haile Gebrselassie (whose personality makes him the greatest of all time in many people's eyes) finished sixth in Athens after magnificent 10,000m golds at Atlanta ‘96 and Sydney 2000. In London 2012, the two Bekeles, Tariku and Kenenisa, finished third and fourth behind Farah. Young Tariku took bronze ahead of his more decorated older brother Kenenisa who was fourth after golds in Athens and Beijing. No male has therefore ever won a third successive medal, let alone gold…  

In fact of all the 10,000m runners in history, it’s two Ethiopian women who have come closest to a hattrick of Olympic golds. Deratu Tulu won Olympic titles in 1992 and 2000 before finishing third in Athens 2004, whilst Tirunesh Dibaba managed three medals in a row after returning from maternity leave in the 2016 final. A magnificent personal best of 29.42 would have been a national record had it not been 25 seconds behind the world record produced by her compatriot Almaz Ayana for gold.

An amazing bronze nonetheless to go alongside her golds in 2008 and 2012 but that’s the closest any athlete has come to three successive golds at the distance. A huge challenge.

As is tomorrow night. Farah’s hattrick attempt is in danger of falling flat before he even thinks about reaching for his boarding pass and PCR test required for Tokyo next month.

Battling a cold and an ankle injury, he was beaten by compatriot Marc Scott on 5 June at the European Cup of 10,000m, which doubled as the British trials for the distance. Provisionally selected as second Brit across the line BUT his time of 27.50 was 22 seconds outside the Olympic qualifying time of 27.28.  So tomorrow night as a curtain raiser to the British Champs in Manchester, Farah is racing the clock, as he battles to finish in a time which would have been a mere formality five years ago.    

My good friend Tim Hutchings has the honour of commentating on that one for British Athletics on their live stream and I know he can’t wait. There won’t be as much noise as there was on that magnificent night in Stratford nine years ago, but it is a huge moment for Farah and one he and coach Gary Lough will be desperate to get right.

And if it goes wrong tomorrow night, what next? The end of another glorious career is imminent, but Farah will be hoping that the all important final chapter is to be written under the banner of the five iconic Olympic rings on the other side of the world, rather than the Manchester regional arena. The gun goes off at 9.35pm tomorrow night. It will be well worth the watch. 

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