For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved athletics. With the exception of football, it was probably the sport that first grabbed my attention, with the catalyst being Linford Christie crossing the line first in the 1992 Olympics.
However, to say I loved athletics fully is only a half-truth. In the same way that someone who says they’re a film fan, yet only ever watches summer blockbusters, my interest in athletics dimmed on an increasing gradient the longer the distance of the race. Anything beyond 800 metres, and my attention was gone. Long-distance running felt, for a lack of a better word, boring.
One imagines that there would have been a lot less attention paid to last night’s 5000 metres if Mo Farah hadn’t have been competing. Casual viewers of the sport tend to be allergic to long-distance racing, as it doesn’t allow for much in the way of absorbing flourishes. Unlike the frenzy of the 100 metres, or the explosiveness inherent in the long jump, there’s little romance to be found in the plodding nature of the longer distances.
When the retrospectives of Farah’s career are written, they’ll be accompanied by one of two pictures (one probable, and one certain). The probable will be one of Farah Moboting. The certain is one of him with a broad, boyish grin, akin to that of a child that has just got the Christmas present he’s long coveted.
But when we focus on the human-interest story of an athlete, it can obscure just what makes them so good. Beyond Farah’s puckish, Tigger-like persona not only lies an exacting and unyielding competitor, but one whose character is perfectly fitting for this event.
Because distances such as the 5,000, 10,000, or marathon lend to a quality essential in competitive sport; essential but undervalued. To win long-distance races, your mindset has to be one of ruthless austerity; George Osborne in spikes.
You have to commit yourself to being mean-spirited, slowly draining the physical energy and psychological will from your opponents, before finishing them off on the last lap. And you have to relish every second. It’s a quality embodied in another legendary British Olympian, Steve Redgrave. Competing at the World Rowing Championships, he once leaned over to his rowing partner, Matthew Pinsent, before uttering the words, “Let’s crush some dreams.”
For viewers, long-distance running is inherently joyless; necessarily so. But it’s crucial to remember that – despite what the television companies would have you believe – sport isn’t entertainment. It’s just happens to – most of the time – be entertaining. Farah’s skill is in being able to embrace the joylessness.
Journalist, Rory Smith made a salient point when he once wrote,“Whenever the montages are made, they lend undue weight to the moments of high drama… It is in the humdrum that championships are claimed.”
The dichotomy of the 5000 metres is that while the intention is to cross the line first, it would be folly to immediately try and put distance between yourself and your rivals. If the brief breathlessness of the sprints are akin to the libertine who lives for the debauched weekend rave, the long-distance is the person with a steady job and a savings account, always making sure they have something in reserve.
Like a surfer knowing how to interact with the undulations of a wave, the best exponents of long-distance running know how to modulate their movements according to the developing rhythms of the race, all the while negotiating the games of bumper-cars fellow runners like to play (see Farah’s fall in the 10000 metre final last week). Case in point, Farah started the 5000 at the back, and only began to advance once he saw the formidable Ethiopian, Muktar Edris do the same.
One of the motifs of the movie Fight Club is, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” And the longer the event, the greater the chance for something to go wrong. You may be trying to rebuff the threats of your competitors, but your mind also has to ward off the doubts, the anxieties, the mental devils that can break your focus.
Despite it seeming like a dull exercise, trying to attain victory in a long-distance race is more profoundly allegorical than any other track and field event. There’s a life lesson in learning that pursuing a goal has no short-cuts, and can only manifest in small incremental gains.
As far as the 5,000 metres goes, those increments become more discernible as the race progresses. The pattern of the event is much like watching a flower in bloom, slowly unfurling its petals to reveal the fullness of its splendour. It’s a slow burn thriller with a dramatic denouement – The Usual Suspects as played out on an athletics track.
And when Farah hits the final 100 metres, the burn no longer becomes slow. His numerous global titles have been built around finding an extra gear in the home straight that leaves his opponents gasping for breath.
This is when the joyless race finds its joy. The way Farah blitzes away from the competition: his body transformed into a perpetual motion machine; his face a broad expression of exertion; and his desperation for victory, brings the excitement that we were denied in the previous 12 or so minutes.
There’s a lot of talk about Farah being included on the year’s end honours list. Given that he already has a CBE, the only thing left for the state to award him is a knighthood.
Sir Mohamed Farah? Picking up an accolade in post-Brexit Britain, expedited by Theresa “never-met-an-immigrant-she-didn’t-want-to-deport” May? It’s a possibility pregnant with sociological meaning, or at the very least the richest of thinkpiece fodder.
Without especially trying, the presence of this black, Muslim man has been a constant repudiation of a nation that’s both anti-black and Islamophobic. But Farah would matter even if he weren’t an athlete. His greatest achievement isn’t his medals or his celebrity. It’s managing to alchemise personal joy in a event that often seems joyless, and in a country that’s often tried to deny joy to anyone that looks like him.
 – That’s track and field for those of a North American persuasion.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.