• ESPN Sports Personality - No. 3

Mo Farah - Not plastic, fantastic

Alex Dimond December 20, 2012
Mo Farah was the golden boy inside the Olympic Stadium for Great Britain © Getty Images

The past 12 months have thrown up a catalogue of memorable sporting performances, including golden Olympic moments, acts of golfing greatness and more than the odd piece of heroism on a bike. Leading up to Christmas, ESPN will name its top 10 sports personalities of the year in ascending order...

To put Mo Farah's remarkable 2012 in context, you have to go back to everything that came before it.

You have to go back, beyond the cumulative 15,000 metres he ran around the Olympic Stadium to become the first Brit in history to win both the distance titles, to all the sacrifices he made, the sweat and tears he expended, just to reach the start line for those races with the mindset that not only could he win gold, but that he would.

You have to go back to his 10,000m European title in 2010, instilling the first thought within him that Olympic gold two years later was a genuine possibility. To how that affected his thought process in early 2011 when, defying nervous observers, he moved to the United States to work with coach Alberto Salazar, despite his career already seeming to be going from strength-to-strength under former mentor Alan Storey.

"I don't want to change too much but I think he will introduce me to a lot of different things," Farah said at the time. "It's not a risk. It's about as an athlete how much do you want it? Do I want a [Olympic] medal or do I want to be thinking back 'That was a great opportunity, should I have taken it?'

"I believe he can just make that 0.5 per cent difference to get close to a medal."

Then came the improvements - more than just 0.5 per cent's worth; the British and European record in the 10,000m at Prefontaine in June 2011, the agonising World Championship silver medal over the same distance a few months later, the redemptive gold in the 5000m days after that.

"I was a lot more confident afterwards," Farah reflected on that run of results. "I knew I could beat most of the guys so [from then on] I was going into a race knowing I've beaten these guys before, I've run the fastest time in the world, training's gone well, I've ticked every box, I've done it.

"This is it now, I'm going into the race and I've got to go and win it."

All that stemmed from the training, a particularly productive confluence of technology and circumstance. Nike's 'Oregon Project' - of which Farah was one of just six participants - gave him cutting-edge tools at his disposal. Salazar, who pushed his charge to run 120 miles a week (not to mention a gruelling series of stop-start sprints to firm up a kick-finish he could, and would, come to need), quickly realised Olympic gold was a possibility - beginning to call his charge at all hours, just to make sure he would not make any silly, Ohurougu-esque mistake with drug testers that could scupper the dream.

"One night he called us in the middle of the night and said: 'Is your doorbell working?' for the testers," Farah recalled at the time. "I just wanted to get some sleep! It was late. But he was panicking."

But a friendship that emerged with one of his training partners, Galen Rupp, owed nothing to meticulous (borderline over-zealous) planning. The two came from vastly different backgrounds but bonded over a football rivalry (Farah an ardent Arsenal fan, Rupp cheering for Manchester United) - with that friendship coming to drive them on whenever training threatened to get too much.

"I've felt lousy and dropped out of a workout [before]," Farah said, in the run-up to the Olympics, "but I'll stay and pace Galen."

Maybe that sentimental incentive to push on made the difference, maybe it did not. But either way, by the time Farah's turn to run in the Olympic Stadium came around he was firmly expected to contend.

Back in 2000, at the Sydney Games, Cathy Freeman was the hope of the home crowd. She duly delivered, her iconic moment passing in 49 frenzied seconds.

Twelve years later, Jessica Ennis had sparked the Stratford crowd into life on what came to be known as 'Golden Saturday' with the final discipline of a heptathlon she had already clinched, 800 metres of coronation that took just over two minutes.

Minutes after that Greg Rutherford added his name to legend with one unbeatable jump that passed in the blink of the eye.

Then came Farah, running for just shy of 28 minutes amid a din of noise - leading from the front for much of the race before edging away over the closing 250m as the roars built to a crescendo to secure a victory no-one who witnessed it (at the stadium or on television) will ever forget.

Then he came back a week later, for another 14 minutes, and (using that kick-finish over the last 200m) did it all again.

The east end of London - not even that long ago - has been known to have struggled to get to grips with the multicultural make-up of modern Britain. Farah, whose father was born and raised in Hounslow, faced hurtful and wildly inaccurate accusations about being a 'Plastic Brit' in some tabloid newspapers in the months leading up to the Games.

Yet here was Stratford reverberating - not once, but twice - to the sound of thousands, hundreds of thousands even, screaming in unison as a Somali-born middle-distance runner - with a twin brother who never left the war-torn African country, in fact - defeated all-comers to claim Olympic gold.

In the aftermath of his first win, Farah was asked - by a foreign journalist perhaps innoculated against the partisan nature of home support - if some part of him did not wish he had been representing the country of his birth.

The response was as unequivocal as his two victories.

"Listen mate, this is my country," Farah responded, with a flash of that steely edge that resides just beneath that wide smile fans are now accustomed to seeing. "This is where I grew up, this is where I started life.

"This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud. The support I got today was unbelievable. I couldn't believe it. It was the best moment of my life."

And it was a moment he was more than great enough, and we were just lucky enough, to get to experience twice.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk