A Somaliland-born Mohamed Farah aka Mo Farah is attempting in Rio a feat of Olympic long-distance running which has been achieved only once in the history of our sport.
Legendary names, the Finns of the 1920s, Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola, the Czech locomotive Emil Zatopek, Russia’s Vladimir Kuts in the 1940s and 1950s, and more recently the Ethiopian maestros Miruts Yifter, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, are among a small group who have achieved multiple Olympic long-distance titles.
Yet only one man, the last Flying Finn, Lasse Viren, has successfully defended an Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m track double. The stature of those names is the true barometer of the task that faces Farah. If successful, it will be the feat that defines his career.
As someone who knows only too well what it takes to retain an Olympic title, but failed on two occasions to achieve a middle-distance double once, let alone twice, the enormity of the mental and physical challenge facing Mo should not be underestimated.
This March at the World Indoor Championships in Portland, Mo was only a spectator. He had taken some time out of training and had barely travelled a couple of neighborhoods from his new home in Oregon.
I remember, when sitting chatting with him, how clear and focused he was about the building bricks he was methodically putting in place in the lead up to Rio.
One of those bricks was brutal, the monsoon conditions at the World Half Marathon in Cardiff a week after we met, when Mo ran well. However, his conqueror that day, Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor, will also be in Rio, attempting to prevent him doing what we all hope he can achieve – and one of the things that Olympic history tells us is that the Games are not always a respecter of reputation.
One of the challenges is that Farah does not have a ‘Team Sky’ around him in the way the Ethiopians and the Kenyans will. In the past, Farah has shown that he has not needed that, although Galen Rupp, his training partner, has always been helpful on those occasions. But, as we saw in London, Galen, who is running the 10,000m and marathon here, will also have his ambitions, and they will certainly not be sublimated with a couple of laps to go.
Farah joins Usain Bolt as one of the principal players in the colorful and entertaining show which the world’s most diverse global sport will present over the next 10 days.
Bolt’s talent defies measurement. The Jamaican, who turns 30 next week and has uniquely won two Olympic sprint triples, now attempts his third. When the heats of the men’s Olympic 100m get under way at midday local time tomorrow, the focus of the sporting, let alone the athletics, world will be on one man.
Other names to watch include the sprint revelation of last summer’s World Championships, Holland’s Dafne Schippers, Europe’s poster girl in Rio. One of the most recognizable faces is New Zealand’s four-time World champion, Valerie Adams, who goes for her third shot-put gold.
There are some mouth-watering head-to-head battles to savor in the one lap. Two youthful talents, Grenada’s reigning Olympic champion Kirani James and last year’s surprise world champion Wayde van Niekerk, of South Africa, are the standouts. In the women’s 400m it is a battle of the ages. America’s Allyson Felix, the Olympic and three-times world 200m champion, contests the 400m against the Bahamas’ former world youth and junior champion Shaunae Miller, this season’s fastest.
Jess Ennis-Hill, in her title defense, takes on one half of ‘Family Eaton’, international athletics standout couple. Brianne Theisen-Eaton finished second to Jess in the Beijing heptathlon last year and is now world indoor champion. Her husband, Ashton, the reigning world and Olympic champion, and world record-holder, seems unassailable in the decathlon.
As a Briton I hope I will be forgiven as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations for keeping an eye on Greg Rutherford’s attempt to retain his long jump title in a wide open field.
After Bolt, Kenya’s David Rudisha was the track-and-field star of London 2012. His
majestic front-run 800m world record is one of the greatest sporting moments in Olympic history. David is battling for that same form four years on and will need every bit of it to defend his title.
The home crowd have, in pole vaulter Fabiana Murer, the 2011 world champion, Brazil’s best chance of track-and-field success, while South America’s banker for gold as a whole rests in Colombia’s two-time world triple jump champion, Caterine Ibarguen.