The years and opponents might change, but for Mo Farah some things remain ever present: that feeling of accelerating through the gears, the thrill of leaving his rivals clutching at his slipstream, the joy of kissing the track knowing another gold medal is in the bag.
This victory over 5,000m was his fourth Olympic title, and it was achieved in much the same way as his other three: accelerating hard on the final lap before kicking away in the final 100 metres. Farah ran his final lap in 52.83sec – an astonishing display of speed, quicker than even his last lap at London 2012 – to win in 13:03.30. Just behind in second was Paul Chelimo, who works for the US army and broke his personal best by 15 seconds, while Hagos Gebrhiwet was third.
Shortly after the race, Chelimo was disqualified for a lane infringement, but after a long appeal he was reinstated. The second Briton in the race, Andrew Butchart, finished sixth having run 13:08.61 – smashing his personal best by nearly five seconds.
As usual, Farah was content to sit at the back at the start, biding his time while he waited for the race to develop. But as the Ethiopians began to push the pace, taking turns to lead, Farah eased through the field to monitor them in sixth before he moved to the front with four laps to go, his team-mate Butchart in second, protecting him. The pace was fast but not excessive. At the bell Farah was leading but he had six athletes on his tail. With 250 to go, Gebrhiwet headed him but Farah soon headed him – and heading towards history.
Afterwards, Farah admitted he hadn’t expected the Ethiopians to push it so hard from the gun.
“I was surprised by the first lap,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a slow race. They had a plan, they wanted to take the sting out of me but when I hit the front, I wasn’t letting anyone past me.
“I can’t believe it. My legs were a bit tired after the 10k – I don’t know how I recovered. People were bringing me food in my hotel room. But I hate to lose. Even in PE, I hated losing. I have that drive – it’s just me. I can’t quite believe it. I wished for just one medal as a junior. It has been a long journey, but if you dream of something, have ambitions and are willing to work hard, then you can get your dreams.”
As Farah stood on the start line he was acutely aware of the prize that awaited him. Victory would make him only the second athlete, after Lasse Viren, to win the 5,000m and 10,000m at two Olympic Games, matching the Flying Finn’s achievement of 1972 and 1976. It would also take Farah’s tally of Olympic and world medals to nine – far ahead of the next British athlete on the list, Jessica Ennis-Hill, with five. If he was nervous he masked it like an actor. Instead, he glared at his rivals, eyeing them up. And then, when his name was introduced, started throwing punches like a boxer.
What goes through his mind at times like this? He has never deeply discussed it. But last year, British Athletics’ performance director, Neil Black, shed a rare and fascinating light on Farah’s mentality before a major race, when the adrenaline is raging through his veins. As Black told an audience of sports scientists and the Observer, Farah always tries to “own the start line” before he competes.
As Black explained: “The critical bit of information that you need to know is that when Mo stands on the start line, he believes he can run faster than anyone else in that race. He believes he can run the last 400m faster than anyone in that race. He believes he could run the last kilometre faster than anyone in that race. He believes he could lift any weight in the gym that anyone wanted to – as a comparison with anyone on the start line – better, faster and heavier. He believes that if he had to fight anyone there he could kick the shit out of them. That’s what owning the start line is.”
Since 2011, when Farah won his first world title over 5,000m in Daegu, there has been little to make him believe he is vulnerable on the track. The fact that there were no Kenyans in the 5,000m final, for the first time since the Rome Games, would have only added to his confidence.
Instead, his biggest threats on paper came instead from Ethiopia: Muktar Edris and Dejen Gebremeskel, who have run under 13 minutes this year, and Gebrhiwet, who took world championship bronze in Beijing in 2015.
Yet despite being overwhelming favourite, Farah still needed to answer how he would respond to the challenge of running three races – the 10,000m, then the 5,000m heats and the final – in seven days. On Friday, the Ethiopian Almaz Ayana, who had set the women’s 10,000m world record a week ago, had blown up in the final. At 33, might Farah’s age finally catch up with him? Might he falter too?
There was also the issue of how questions about the extent of his relationship with the controversial coach Jama Aden, who was arrested by Spanish police in June on charges of administering and distributing doping substances and endangering public health, would affect him. As Farah put it bluntly to the media corps after his 10,000m victory: “Sometimes I feel you guys hate me”.
In reality there is no hate towards Farah. But while the large British contingent in the stadium cheered him on, his links with Aden and the vociferously denied allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar have eating away at the unconditional love Farah was afforded in London 2012.
Not that any of these pressures bothered him when the race started. Farah had already dedicated his previous three Olympic gold medals to his twins, Amani and Aisha, and his eldest daughter Rihanna. Before this final he had promised one for his young son Hussein too. As usual he delivered.
“It shows I didn’t just fluke it in London. To do it again is incredible,” he said, the emotion flooding his body. “I just want to see my kids and hang this medal around their necks.”
This article was written by Sean Ingle at the Olympic Stadium, for theguardian.com on Sunday 21st August 2016 02.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010