Friday, August 16, 2013

2013 IAAF World Championships, Men's 5,000m Final

Mo Farah completes the double in Moscow on Friday

What: 2013 IAAF World Championships, day seven

Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia

When: 16 August 2013

A few takeaways after Mo Farah held off Hagos Gebrhiwet and Isiah Koech to win gold in the 5,000m in Moscow on Friday.

1. No European runner has had a better three-year stretch than Mo Farah from 2011-13.

With his fifth straight global gold medal on Friday, Mo Farah became the greatest British runner of all time. He’s been the most dominant distance runner on the planet for three years now. Check out what he’s accomplished since 2011:

2011: European record, 10,000m (26:46.57); Worlds 10,000m silver, Worlds 5,000m gold
2012: Olympic 10,000m gold, Olympic 5,000m gold
2013: European record, 1,500m (3:28.81, #6 all-time); Worlds 10,000m gold, Worlds 5,000m gold

That’s an astonishing list.

2. The Kenyans and Ethiopians continue to shoot themselves in the feet.

Every one of Mo Farah’s five global golds has played out in a similar fashion: Farah will move to the lead at some point in the final three laps, steadily accelerate the pace and finally leave everyone in the dust over the final 100m. None of the races have been particularly fast by his standards: his winnings times in the 5,000m were 13:23, 13:41 and 13:26; in the 10,000m, they were 27:30 and 27:21.

However, during that span, Mo Farah ran one other global final: the 10,000m at Worlds in 2011. In that race, Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia ran 27:13 to upset Farah for the gold. That time is clearly much faster than either of the times in Farah’s 10,000m victories. And, using the Purdy equivalence chart, 27:13 equates to 13:00 for 5,000m. It’s undoubtedly a better performance than any of the times from Farah’s 5,000m wins.

With this evidence in hand, the strategy should be clear: Farah is more vulnerable in a faster race. Farah’s competitors in the 5,000m didn’t have the benefit of that last data point (results of the 2013 5,000m) before devising their strategies for the race. But after factoring in what Farah’s done over the past few years and watching the 10,000m field employ the same (losing) tactics, isn’t it obvious what should have happened?

There are problems about setting up a fast race in a global final. Only one man can win, so those that don’t will question themselves about what would have happened in a slow race. It’s difficult to coordinate, as athletes from the same country often have different coaches and different levels of confidence in their fitness. And, most frustrating of all, there’s no concrete evidence that Farah wouldn’t win in a fast race anyway. After all, his only loss this year came off of sickness at the Pre Classic in June, and he just ran 3:28 in Monaco last month.

Nevertheless, if I was trying to knock off Farah, here’s what I would have done: try and set up a fast pace (12:55-13:00) over the first 4,000m. The Kenyans and Ethiopians were apparently reluctant to do this (though Koech did try to push it early on before coming back to the pack), but I’d pitch it that the more people that buy in, the easier the pace work becomes. It’s a lot easier to run 62s when five people are splitting the work than it is with two. After 4,000m, the pacing is done and it’s every man for himself. Farah might still try to control from the front, but that’s a lot harder to do when you’ve been running 13:00 pace the whole way. It might not have worked, but it’s a lot better than the current sit-and-kick strategy that has been tried (and failed) in the last five global finals.

3. Where does he go from here?

There are no Olympics or World Championships next year, so Farah will make his marathon debut in London in April. I’m not quite sure what his plans will be after that, but I’d love to see him make a run at Mohammed Mourhit’s European records at 3,000m and 5,000m (7:26.62 and 12:49.71, respectively). I think Kenenisa Bekele’s world records at 5,000m and 10,000m are safe, but have no doubt that Farah, in his current form, could run 12:49 (and potentially much, much faster) in the right race.

4. How long will he stay on top?

Farah will be 32 by the time the next World Championships in Beijing roll around in 2015. It’s easy to forget because he only started making noise on the global scene in 2011, but Farah has been around for a while now. For comparison’s sake, the two other medalists on Friday – Gebrhiwet and Koech – will both be 21 in Beijing. 

This isn’t good news for Farah. Since the World Championships began in 1983, the oldest man to win gold in the 5,000 at Worlds or the Olympics is Bernard Lagat, who was 32 when he won the 5,000 in 2007. In the 10,000, it’s even less promising. Last Saturday, Farah became the oldest man in that span to win a global 10,000 title, at age 30. The second-oldest to do so? Farah in 2012. You could make the point that if he’s already become the oldest man to win a title, Farah might just be an exception to the rule. But we have years of data suggesting that 32-year-old men don’t win gold medals at Worlds. It’s a lot more likely that Farah becomes part of the norm, rather than the exception. If you asked me right now, I’d say that one of Gebrhiwet or Koech has a better chance of winning gold in 2015 than Farah.

For anyone crying heresy, consider this: In 2009, Kenenisa Bekele capped a three-year run almost identical to the one Farah has just finished – five global golds, including back-to-back 5/10 doubles at the Olympics and Worlds. Since then, guess how many medals Bekele has won? Zero. In fact, he’s finished just one global final, placing fourth in last year’s Olympic 10k. If Bekele, arguably the Greatest of All Time, fell off that quickly (he was just 27 in 2009; remember that Farah is 30 now), then what does that mean for Farah?

It adds up to the conclusion that we’ve probably seen the best of Mo Farah -- on the track, anyway. While many look to Farah’s move to coach Alberto Salazar as the primary factor in his ascension to world-beater, Farah has also had fantastic luck with injuries, staying remarkably healthy over the last few years. That sort of health is difficult to maintain, especially as a runner enters his thirties: just ask Bekele. If he can stay healthy, I still expect Farah to be among the world’s best two years from now in Beijing. But his biggest rivals are younger and have much more room for improvement at the moment. If he hasn't moved to the marathon full-time by 2015, winning another gold medal on the track will be Farah’s toughest challenge yet.


  1. Very good article, thanks.

    Canova on his blog makes the point that to beat Farah the Ethiopians / Kenyans would have to employ tactics that probably involved a designated leader (for each of them...). The tactics would then require intense bursts from early in the race. This should really work as Farah wouldn't be able to cover all breaks. However, the point that Canova reaches is that the Kenyans and Ethiopians would not want to risk handing the advantage to one another as the last thing that they want is the other country to take gold. Losing to Mo is a less bad alternative. This makes some sense to me, but it does strike me that they wouldn't have cared 15-20 years ago - would Tergat have accepted this domination? No, he'd have tried to break him early on.

    The influence of Salazar has also been massive. And probably the major factor behind his injury luck. When Farah won the Europeans in 2010 he had made a breakthrough, but he was still a little like Andy Murray in that his coaching set-up appeared to lack structure. Getting under a world class coach (and away from the UK?) then gave him that extra 1-2% that he needed for this dominating period.

  2. Good article. However, I would agree he is the winningest runner but not the greatest. While his 1500 is amazing the rest of his efforts have been relatively slow. When you reflect on the multiple world records from Coe, Ovett and Cram you surely must concede Mo has a little more to do before being called the greatest.