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Mo Farah Makes Tactical Racing Fun

The 10K champ isn’t the fastest guy in the world, but he just might be the best racer alive

Getty Images
Getty Images

Mo Farah did a strange thing during the men’s 10,000-meter final on Saturday: He took his victory lap as the race was just beginning. The distance champion gave fans a nice wave on the opening lap, and spent the first mile and a half taking a stroll at the back of the pack. Then, he zoomed to the front in a single lap, because he’s Mo Farah, and he’s the most decorated distance runner in track history for a reason.

Farah’s introductory wave signaled his self-confidence and comfort in the race, but it wasn’t a sign of the next 27 minutes to come. Dealing with a fall early and a worthy challenge late, the Somali-born Brit did not move into first place for good until the final turn, ultimately squeaking out a victory. Instead, the more fitting image came as he neared the finish: Below the waist, Farah’s stride was smoothly extended, his gait unruffled; above, his jaw clenched and his eyes bulged from his head.

That picture defines the last half-decade of distance running. It beamed through our television screens again Saturday night, as Farah extended his reign on the track with a second consecutive gold medal in the 10K — his third Olympic gold overall.

By this time next week, he may have secured his place in history as the greatest-ever distance runner to compete on a track. Or not. It depends on a philosophical question: Is racing legacy built on running the fastest, or is it built on winning?

If it’s the former, Farah has no real claim to be the GOAT. If you judge him purely by his times, he’s not particularly close, either: His personal-best 10K race places him only the 16th-fastest in history, and his best 5K ranks 31st all time.

But if it’s the latter, Farah has a convincing case. He hasn’t lost a championship 5K or 10K in five years and now adds the 2016 10K gold to his mantel, where it will sit alongside two other Olympic golds and five from the world championships. No man before Farah had ever doubled at three consecutive global championships, and Farah could make it four in the 5K next weekend.

Should Farah win gold in that race — he’s certainly the favorite — the debate will rage long and loud. (Read the folks at LetsRun.com for a thorough analysis.) But before “Farah the Runner” turns into “Farah the Historical Figure,” let’s not lose sight of the feat itself.

With no pacesetters to help the top runners meet their desired splits, championship races are tactical in nature, and Farah wins regardless of the actual tactics his opponents employ. For five summers now, the best East African runners have emptied their playbooks to try to prevent Farah from unfurling his magnificent closing sprint; for five summers, Farah has foiled their efforts.

At some races, such as the 10K in the 2012 London games, Farah’s competition didn’t do much to counter his strengths. That race was a classic sit-and-kick affair, which fit Farah’s strategy perfectly and rendered him uncatchable in the final lap. At others, groups of runners have embraced team tactics against Farah. A trio of Kenyans attempted to break Farah early in the 2015 world championship 10K, hoping to limit his famed closing ability. He still had enough energy to win with room to spare.

The Kenyans attempted a similar tactic on Saturday, breaking the race open after the first quarter-hour to string along the field, but Farah stayed comfortably in the mix. Then two Ethiopian runners did the same, to similarly muted effect. One competitor even tried to scoot around Farah’s right shoulder as the two lapped a slower runner — which would have trapped Farah momentarily on the inside — only for the Brit to turn on the jets and maintain his solid position.

Unlike in 2012, when a pack of a dozen runners stayed in sight of a medal until the last lap, tonight’s race had only five real competitors in the final 1,000 meters. Farah didn’t care — he beat all of them both years, anyway.

“He is the master of all he surveys,” the NBC stream’s announcer remarked at the start of the race, when Farah gave his happy wave to the crowd. He confirmed the sentiment about a half-hour later, when he repeated the motion. This time, he had his country’s flag draped around his back and another gold medal waiting for him on the medal stand.