Mo Farah - for this night at least, Britain’s most popular sports star
King of the track, knight of the realm, one-man medal factory wins BBC award
It was the biggest shock in the 63-year history of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards. But as Mo Farah’s name was read out, and the crowd rose to its feet in stunned appreciation, it was clear no one was more dumbstruck than the man himself. First his eyes widened. Then he covered his mouth in joyous exhilaration. It would have been no surprise if an expletive had tumbled out, although that would have required his jaw to start functioning again.
In the hours before Sunday’s vote, Britain’s most successful track and field athlete had been a 50-1 underdog behind the heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, who appeared a raging certainty. No wonder Farah, who had made the Spoty podium only once, in 2011, elected to stay at home in London, fearing the bitter tang of rejection yet again.
Instead, a British public who had voted for Brexit just 18 months ago and given Jeremy Corbyn a dramatic uplift in the final days of the general election flipped perceived wisdom on its head yet again by voting for a Somali-born athlete in an increasingly marginal sport. As the 34-year-old Farah put it: “I didn’t see that coming. I honestly didn’t think I would win it. I am very surprised. But it was the only thing missing, right?”
No wonder he was happy. King of the track, knight of the realm, one-man medal factory – and now, for this night at least, Britain’s most popular sports star.
Athletes have lifted the BBC trophy a record 17 times, but this was the first time since 2004 when Kelly Holmes was rewarded for her 800m and 1500m triumphs at the 2004 Olympics. Few expected Farah to snap that streak. He thought his chance had gone last year, when he failed to squeeze into the top three despite a glorious double gold medal triumph at the Rio Olympics.
In January, when I asked him if he wondered why he was not more popular, he grimaced ruefully and replied: “Yeah, you do think a little bit like, what can you do?”
Farah’s supporters will believe this award is long overdue given all his spectacular sprint finishes, Mobots and frequent visits to the podium in his late blooming career. In August this year, he also ran his final race of a track career that has brought him a staggering four Olympic and six world gold medals. No other British athlete has come close to that.
His detractors, however, would point out that Farah won his first global title at the late age of 28 – which to their mind arouses suspicions – and only ended his relationship with his coach Alberto Salazar, who remains under investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency, in the autumn.
Until Farah joined Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project in late 2010 he hovered just under super-elite level, finishing sixth in the 5,000m at the 2007 world championships and seventh in the same event in 2009. But he undoubtedly became a stronger athlete under Salazar – and very quickly became unstoppable over 5,000m and 10,000m.
For years his great advantage was that he was able to maintain a high cruising speed before sprinting powerfully clear on the last lap. After his victories in Rio he confided that his big secret was being able to run the last 400m in under 50 seconds.
But in Rio he was also clearly thrown when asked about his friendship with the controversial coach Jama Aden, who is being investigated by the Spanish anti-doping authorities, and whom he talks about in his autobiography.
Meanwhile this year a leak by the Russian hackers Fancy Bears, of data from nearly 50 elite athletes’ biological passports, suggested at least one expert thought Farah’s data was “likely doping; passport suspicious” in November 2015 – although six months later another International Association of Athletics Federations email stated his ABP results “very recently became ‘normal’.” Farah has always denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly insisted that he is clean.
Finally, it is also worth speculating over why Farah has won a trophy he has always craved in the autumn of his career. Perhaps it was valedictory, given that he quit the track for the road in August after being cheered to the rafters following a 10,000m gold and 5,000m silver at this summer’s world championships in London. A little more tenuously, it might also have something to do with the booming popularity of Park Run. Certainly the growing number of people who run a five-kilometre race each week have a far better understanding of what Farah is able to do. Maybe it is more simple than that.
Perhaps having his son Hussein climbing all over him earlier in the night as he was being interviewed persuaded a few floating voters. Either way, it was a close-run thing. Farah ended up with 83,524 votes, just under 3,000 clear of the Superbike rider Jonathan Rea. When he spoke later on Radio 5 Live the delight in his voice was obvious. He has long loved the appreciation of the British athletics crowd. And now the wider public has taken him to their hearts too.