Three Thoughts on Mo Farah’s Return to the Track for the 2020 Olympics

By Jonathan Gault
November 29, 2019

Mo Farah will defend his Olympic 10,000-meter title in Tokyo. Farah, 36, left the track after the 2017 season to focus on the marathon, but speculation always remained that he would one day return to the track, where he won Olympic gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 in both 2012 and 2016. After flirting with the 10,000 at the 2019 Worlds, Farah ultimately opted to run the Chicago Marathon instead, which went disastrously — he finished 8th in 2:09:58, the slowest of his five career marathons.

Now, a month later, Farah has announced that he is returning to the track in 2020 and intends to run the 10,000 meters in Tokyo.

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1) Farah is a good marathoner, but he was moving in the wrong direction

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Farah’s move to the marathon was far from a disaster. He finished third in a competitive London Marathon in 2018 and went on to win Chicago that fall, setting a European record of 2:05:11 in the process. Those performances exceeded many expectations, and Farah certainly made some nice money from his appearance fees.

That said, in the age of 2:01 marathons and the Nike Vaporflys, 2:05:11 — which remains Farah’s PR — simply isn’t that impressive; it ranked Farah as the 15th-fastest marathoner of 2018 and would put him 18th on the 2019 list. Yes, he could have run faster in Chicago last year as he waited until the final miles to make his big move, but the fact that he failed to improve his PR in London this year — a race in which three men ran 2:03:16 or faster — is telling.

Just compare Farah’s 2018 results to 2019.

2018 London: 3rd, 2:06:21
2019 London: 5th, 2:05:39

2018 Chicago: 1st, 2:05:11
2019 Chicago: 8th, 2:09:58

Farah’s goal in Tokyo is Olympic gold, and to do that in the marathon, he would have to overcome Eliud Kipchoge. His hope was that he could close the gap in 2019. Instead, it’s only widened.

One other point: a bad day for Farah in the marathon is much worse than a bad day on the track. Farah’s ran 60 track races from 2011-17 and won 48 of them (80%). His worst finish was 5th, and that was in a 1500. Meanwhile, he’s run four marathons since the start of 2018 and has won just one, finishing 5th and 8th in two of them.

2) This is Farah’s best shot for gold (and a medal) in Tokyo, but how much does he have left?

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The Olympic marathon can be a crapshoot. Because of the conditions (usually hot) and the number of things that can go wrong over a 26.2-mile race, the best three athletes on paper don’t always end up medalling at the Olympics (remember, Paula Radcliffe never won an Olympic medal). In the 10k, the top three guys end up medalling far more frequently.

So if Farah can get back to his old level in the 10,000, he has a great chance to medal or even win. But can he do it? Farah was already one of the oldest Olympic 10k champions in history when he won in 2016, and he’s been away from the track for two years. He would be the oldest if he won it at age 37 in 2020.

That said, prior to his marathons, Farah has said he’s been surprised by how much speed he still has when running track sessions. And with four Olympic golds already, Farah could just as easily retire if he didn’t feel he was capable of medalling in Tokyo. The fact that he’s committing to giving it a go on the track suggests he still has something left in the tank.

Ages of men’s Olympic 10,000m champions

Year Champion Age
1912 Hannes Kolehmainen 22
1920 Paavo Nurmi 23
1924 Ville Ritola 28
1928 Paavo Nurmi 31
1932 Janusz Kusocinski 25
1936 Ilmari Salminen 33
1948 Emil Zatopek 25
1952 Emil Zatopek 29
1956 Vladimir Kuts 29
1960 Pyotr Bolotnikov 30
1964 Billy Mills 26
1968 Naftali Temu 23
1972 Lasse Viren 23
1976 Lasse Viren 27
1980 Miruts Yifter 36*
1984 Alberto Cova 25
1988 Brahim Boutayeb 21
1992 Khalid Skah 25
1996 Haile Gebrselassie 23
2000 Haile Gebrselassie 27
2004 Kenenisa Bekele 22
2008 Kenenisa Bekele 26
2012 Mo Farah 29
2016 Mo Farah 33

*There is some uncertainty about Yifter’s birthday, but World Athletics lists it as May 15, 1944

3) If Farah wins gold in 2020, he’d make history — but it will be his toughest test yet

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for IAAF

No man has ever won three Olympic 10,000 titles. Farah could do it in Tokyo, but it will be his hardest gold yet. That’s because Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei is better than anyone Farah beat in 2012 or 2016. Yes, Farah beat Kenenisa Bekele in 2012, but that Bekele was a shell of himself; the silver medalist in that race was American Galen Rupp, who hasn’t medalled at a global championship on the track before or since.

Cheptegei took silver behind Farah in their last encounter at the 2017 Worlds — Farah’s last world title — but he’s improved by a ton since then. 2019 was the strongest year of Cheptegei’s career to date, as he ran PRs in the 5,000 (12:57) and 10,000 (26:48) in addition to winning Worlds on the track (10k), the Diamond League title (5k), and World XC. For a 37-year-old Farah to beat a 23-year-old, in-his-prime Cheptegei in Tokyo would rank among his finest achievements.

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