Aug. 4, 2017, London
By Dave Hunter
On opening night of the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships, the rabid British track & field fans - and indeed most of the capacity crowd that packed London's Olympic Stadium - got their wish as the incomparable Mo Farah fended off a multi-national assault by a squad of African athletes and utilized a blistering finish to win his third straight world championship 10,000 meter crown.
After a tantalizing undercard which included the Bolt-featured opening rounds of the men's 100 meters, the restless audience was sufficiently amped for the only final of Day One, the night's closer: the men's 10,000 meter final. As the 24 distance warriors were led out onto the track behind juvenile standard bearers, the athletes walked with determination up the homestretch. All except one. Farah - who has never lost in this stadium - joyfully skipped into lane three. Almost giddy, the two-time defending champion waved his arms to exhort on his legion of adoring followers as he danced to the starting line. One thing was clear: he was ready to roll.
As the runners towed the line, many observers reflected on the dominant question: Would Farah's opponents allow the pace to linger, desperately clinging to an ill-advised championship strategy that had never led to a Farah defeat? Or would one or a group of his adversaries be bold enough to employ a different upbeat tactic, one inclined to push the Brit out of his comfort zone.
Shortly after the crack of the starting pistol, the answer was clear. It was so on. The Africans charged to the front with Uganda's Joshua Cheptegei splitting the opening 400 in 61. The crowd roared. This was going to be a bona fide, no-holds barred, 25 lap blood bath. Joining the Ugandan up front were Ethiopia's Adamlak Belihu and Kenya's Geoffrey Kamworor, a long-time Farah nemesis. After an opening kilo in 2:39, the 5-time world championship gold medalist was nestled into 15th place, unfazed by the brisk early race tempo. The tri-national combine soldiered on, passing 2K in 5:25 and 3K in 8:09. As laps rolled by, it was clear that the Ethiopian athletes were the backbone of this African continent assault as Abadi Hadis and countryman Jemal Yimer joined the front-packers pushing the pace.
Approaching 4 kilometers, Farah gently revved the engine, easily moving from the back of the pack to join the leaders while the partisan onlookers roared their approval. A 61 second pick-up just before halfway softened up the field and strung out the racers as they sped past 5 kilos in 13:33.
At 6K - passed in 16:17 - the lead pack had been reduced to 15. The African combine knew they had to press on. With 8 laps remaining, Cheptegei unleashed another body blow: a 65 second circuit with another 63 second lap that followed. With 1200 meters remaining - the African plan was unshaken: Hadis was flying in the lead with Kamworor in 2nd and Paul Tanui in 3rd . Covering those moves, but still in 6th, Farah was dialed in and appeared prepared for what he knew would be a furious finish.
Mo Farah winning 10,000m, photo by PhotoRun.net
Coming up on 2 laps remaining, Farah - knowing it was time to go - moved up into the lead. Controlling the race now from up front, Farah took the bell followed closely by Cheptegei, Tanui, and Kenya's Bedan Muchiri - 4 superb athletes fighting for 3 medals. As the bunched quartet approached the top of the backstretch, the crowd gasped as Farah was soundly clipped from behind, nearly falling. Only Farah's ballet-like balance prevented another Rio-like fall. The tussle seemed to energize the defending champion as he sped down the backstretch. Now in full flight with fans hitting record decibel levels, Farah took one quick backward glance in the homestretch to affirm he was safe. A final stumble-filled circuit in 56 seconds sent Farah across the line in 26:49.53 for the hard-fought victory. With a final 2000 meters in a punishing 5:07, Farah rang up his fastest championship clocking and his second best 10K mark ever. While the bold African race strategy could not deny Farah his third consecutive world 10,000 meter title, the aggressive pace-setters who set up this electrifying race were rewarded as the 28-year old Cheptegei took silver [26:49.94] and Tanui [26:50.60] grabbed the bronze.
Later, in the press conference, the re-crowned champion - with an ice bag affixed to his left knee - was gracious with the media. "It was amazing tonight, I had to get my head around it," declared the victor. "I got a bit emotional at the start and then I just had to get in the zone." Farah dispelled any notion that the race was stress-free. "It wasn't an easy race though. It has been a long journey where I have worked very hard on long distance but also speed." Farah, whose global distance domination has spanned nearly a decade, cites his championship race experience as aiding him in his win. "I knew at 12 laps to go when they went hard from there it was going to be tough. It was about believing in my sprint finish and knowing that I have been in that position before. It helped a lot having that experience." Sir Mo did take time to summarize his view on the evening. "What a way to end my career in London. This was very special."
Before leaving to receive a little treatment on his tender knee and to begin preparing mentally for the defense of his 5000 meter title, the incomparable champion took a moment to address the love affair he shares with the British fans. "It makes me proud to be British. This crowd is amazing," he notes. Pressed to explain the secret to his unparalleled success in global championships, Farah is candid. "It's been hard. I guess I'm just mentally strong." It's also helpful if you just happen to be the greatest distance running track racer of all time.