Tuesday, December 18, 2012

BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2012: Mo Farah

Mo Farah went where no British distance runner had gone before, winning the 5,000m-10,000m golden double, the toughest events in the deepest and most competitive discipline in Olympic sport. He also travelled perhaps the hardest road of any of his Team GB contemporaries to get there. Farah’s story captured most completely the overwhelming sense of belonging that made 17 remarkable days in London feel like an alternative reality. In the winning smile of the hyperactive Somali refugee, who found a welcome in the UK and fulfilment in the extremities of long-distance running, we saw the best of ourselves. The longest track events are the five-day Test matches of Olympic sport, where strategy and tactics are tested at the limits of endurance, and Farah was up against the lions of distance running, with three-man teams from Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea lined up against him. He went in to both events knowing that he was not the fastest man in the field. In the 5,000m, he was not even in the top five. But he knew he was the strongest. Knowing it is one thing, making it count quite another. That Farah had the mental strength to deliver on perfect physical conditioning, honed in private by his coach Alberto Salazar, makes his feat the crowning achievement of Olympic year. He was not quite alone. American training partner, Galen Rupp, was a key ally, particularly in the 10,000m. He also had the assistance of the home crowd who cheered him on. Close your eyes and think of Farah’s triumphs and it is the noise that comes first. The soundtrack of those triumphant nights was a roar that lapped the stadium in synchronicity with the athletes, an ear-splitting cacophony composed of 80,000 voices beseeching “Come on, Mo” in 400m long roundels. We encountered it first on Aug 5, when Farah took to the track for the 10,000m final. I was privileged to be the recipient of an Olympic press pass this summer, a golden ticket to a sporting candy store beyond Willie Wonka’s wildest imagination, but my real good fortune was to have got lucky in the ticket ballot for what turned in to ‘Super Saturday’. Professionally, the race was a fascinating demonstration of the power of fear. The Eritrean, Ethiopian and Kenyan teams were caught between their wariness of Farah’s strength and finishing speed, and mutual suspicion of each other. The smart move would have been to run fast as a team of nine and take a one-in-three chance on a medal. Instead, their tactics muddled by misgivings, we got a championship race of fluctuating pace, only gaining momentum in the final 1,000m. Farah kept out of trouble, covered every move, and was never headed once he went to the front with 400m left. The great Kenenisa Bekele was among those with no answer. Personally, high in the stands at one end of the stadium, it was impossible not to be swept away by the torrent of goodwill for the tiny figure in the British vest showing the might of East Africa a clean pair of heels. A week later he was back, having survived a 5,000m heat in which the physical and emotional effort of the 10,000m appeared to have taken its toll. It turned out there was more than a touch of kidology in that performance. Despite facing a field containing five men with better season-best times and six with better personal bests, Farah triumphed again. Again, the field played into his hands, running painfully slowly as they waited for someone to make a move. With 700m to go, it was Mo, and the crowd swept him home again. There was time for one final tribute, from Farah’s only rival as star of the London stadium, Usain Bolt. When the Jamaican crossed the line in world-record time to win his third gold medal in the 4x100m, he did so performing the Mobot. If it’s good enough for Bolt, it’s good enough for me. Mo Farah: sports personality of the year.