LONDON — Five years ago, the London Summer Olympics opened with a happy and glorious riff, Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond, escorting Her Majesty the Queen out to the royal helicopter, where it then wheeled above cheering crowds in the sun-splashed city below (hello!) and then under Tower Bridge to Olympic Stadium.
From the moment the “queen” and “007” jumped out of that copter, Mo Farah, the Somali-born British distance runner, has gone on to win the Olympic distance double-double thunderball, first in London and then in Rio, the men’s 5,000 and 10,000. For his efforts, the queen on January 1 of this year made Farah a Knight of the Realm. Pretty heady stuff.
The problem with encores, as 007 could readily tell you, is that it’s always tough to top the spectre of that last installment. So many critics. The world is not enough, as it were.
On Friday, back at Olympic Stadium, after Prince Andrew delivered the opening address of the 2017 IAAF world championships on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Farah won a thrilling 10k before a crowd that had eyes for him only, in the fastest time of the year, 26:49.51.
Once again, he executed the runner’s license to kill.
The Bond riffs are endless — we haven’t even gotten to Ms. Galore, or M or Q — but what else, really, would do? These championships, which for Farah mean the 10k and, later, the 5k, mark his last runs on the track, he has said. Sports is of course unscripted drama, and no one is suggesting anything untoward in Friday’s result. At the same time, of course Friday’s race begged for a Hollywood ending. Come on.
“It was perfect tonight,” Farah would say afterward. “I had to get my head around it. I got a bit emotional at the start and then I just had to get in the zone.”
The men’s 10k is a set piece. Like a Bond film, it comes in distinct parts.
The race takes, in all, 25 laps. There’s the set-up. The middle. Then the satisfying ending.
And, of course, the chase scenes.
At the elite level, things typically start at 65 to 68 seconds per lap. Then, as it gets going, about maybe a lap per minute. Then, for the final 400 to 600 meters — and this is after running 25 or so minutes — it’s 52-, 53-, 54-ish seconds per lap.
What has made Farah so formidable over the years is that last bit. That is, his killer speed over the final 400 to 600.
The last time Farah lost a major title was in the 10k way back at the 2011 worlds, in Daegu, South Korea. Farah turned the last lap in just over 53. His problem is that Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia ran it in the 52s.
Jeilan was no slouch. He would win silver, behind Farah’s gold, in the 10k at the 2013 Moscow worlds.
That moment in Korea marked a turning point.
Was it motivation alone that has fueled Farah since? Or something more?
Farah’s coach, Alberto Salazar, remains under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Salazar is not in London at these championships. Farah has strenuously and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
The skeptic knows well the history of the sport. The skeptic must, though, acknowledge that Farah — since the first of the doubles, in London five years ago — has occupied a central place in the British sporting and cultural imagination, a remarkable thing for a track and field athlete, indeed.
To be clear:
Without question, Farah and Usain Bolt have been the two central players in the publicity build-up to the 2017 worlds. Any doubt? Take a look at what’s called the “statistics handbook,” a hefty paperback that’s chock-a-block with virtually every conceivable nugget a stats geek would want. Who’s that on the cover? Farah.
Who did the capacity crowd of 60,000-plus come to see Friday night?
And, of course, Bolt.
In that spirit, kudos to Emmanuel Matadi of Liberia, who in Friday’s very first race, the men’s 100 prelims, ran a winning 10.27, then told reporters, “I guess I’d have to say I want to go after the big dogs. I want the big guy. Big Bolt! Hopefully I can catch him before he goes out.”
If this was a bid to scare the living daylights out of Bolt, as it were, not a chance.
Matadi was placed in the first of the six 100 heats later Friday; Bolt ran in heat six; Matadi produced a 10.24, barely good enough to squeak into Saturday’s semifinals, where his quest will continue, though again in a different heat than the big guy.
At precisely 9:02 p.m., the PA announcer decreed: “In his final championship, the legend of athletics, representing Jamaica, Usain Bolt.” In Lane 7, the big guy did not disappoint, jogging to victory in 10.07, after which the costumed hedgehog mascot untied his laces. With Bolt, it’s always a show, or something.
That was prelude to Farah, 15 or so minutes later.
Amid the 100 heats, the big-screen TV showed Farah warming up in a white-and-blue jacket, a ski cap on to keep warm on a blustery London evening. The crowd erupted in cheers.
Did the crowd care, really, about doping insinuations?
Or — only about what the headlines say when it comes to certain athletes? Because Justin Gatlin, who has been demonized relentlessly in the British press for years, was booed when he was announced in his 100-meter heat, shrugging it off as what-else in London.
IAAF president Seb Coe had said in a news conference a few hours before the race, “The fans will be turning up tonight because they love athletics,” the British-ism for track and field.
“They still believe for large part that what they are watching is done with integrity,” he said, adding a moment later, “This is a championship that will celebrate the very best and we have to be very careful that our fan base is having a very healthy appetite for our sport and wanting to celebrate some of the God-given talent that is in our sport.”
Farah’s talent through the first week of August in 2017, for what it’s worth, had produced only the year’s third-best time, 27:12.09. Two Ethiopians, Adabi Hadis and Jemal Yimer, had gone a few ticks faster, 27:08.26 and 27:09.08. Hadis is 19, Yimer 20. Coming into the race, no one knew whether they had the right stuff mentally.
At the 2015 worlds in Beijing, Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor had come second, behind Farah; Kamworor, moreover, is a two-time world cross-country champion (2017, 2015).
Kamworor, now 24, came into the race having run 27:35.9 this year.
Another Kenyan Paul Tanui, the 26-year-old Rio 2016 silver medalist, all 104 pounds of him, had gone 27:42.6. He took bronze at the Moscow 2013 10k.
Bedan Karoki Muchiri, yet another Kenyan and accomplished cross-country runner (silver, behind Kamworor at the 2015 championships in China), 27:40.3.
For these challengers, and Kamworor in particular, mental toughness was not the issue. For them, it was far more elemental — gritting it out past Farah at the end.
The first split Friday proved brisk: 61 seconds.
Then things slowed down on lap two: 64.95. The third and fourth laps, 67, as matters settled down.
At 4000 meters, just under 11 minutes into the race, Farah, who had been lurking way back into the field, moved into third, behind Kamworor and Joshua Kiprui Cheptegei, a 20-year-old from Uganda who last year in Rio had finished sixth in the 10k.
Then Farah let the field stretch out again — letting a gaggle of Kenyans, Ethiopians and Ugandans run another 61-second lap.
At 6000 meters, it was back to a 67-second lap, Kamworor up front, Tanui just behind, Farah a second or so back.
With six laps to go, it started getting quicker again, Cheptegei throwing a 63-second lap, followed by Kamworor and Tanui, Farah in fifth, a half-second back.
With two laps to go, Farah and Hadis had surged to the front.
At 600 meters, Farah did what he does. At the bell, Tanui went with him.
“It’s about winning for Mo Farah,” British Athletics performance director Neil Black had told the British Press Association service in advance of the race.
“Every year certain things happen where it gets to a point where suddenly Mo Farah knows that he’s ready.
“… This year it was probably 12 days ago. And he did something in training without killing himself that confirmed to him and the rest of us that you’re ready. He then takes his shoes off and says, ‘That’s it, job done.’ You’ll see something special.”
The last lap, Farah was clipped twice. He stumbled but did not go down.
Down the homestretch, Farah poured it on and, at the line, arms spread wide like he was flying, he was — again — first. He stopped the clock at 26:49.51.
Cheptegei took second, 26:49.94; Tanui, third, 26.50.6.
Seven runners finished under 27 minutes — Kamworor taking sixth in 26:57.77.
The stat sheet told the story:
Farah ran the final kilometer in 2:28.82, Cheptegei in 2:29.47. There’s the difference between gold and silver.
“I love this stadium,” Farah would say afterward, one of his young children on his shoulders, a few minutes before Coe awarded him another gold medal.
He also said, “It has been hard,” adding, “I’m just mentally strong, I guess.”
The 5k final comes up on August 12. Asked if he expected another hard race, Farah paused and said, drawing out the answer, “Yes.”
Never say never again, people. Or, as Prince Andrew had put it in Olympic Stadium a few hours before the world bore witness yet again to Mo Farah on the red track, “I have no doubt that more wonderful memories will be created over the next 10 days and the performances beginning tonight will serve as an inspiration across the world.”