WTW: Mo Farah Has Retired – Where Does He Rank Amongst the All-Time Distance Greats?

The Week That Was in Running, September 4 – September 10, 2023

Last week was a busy one in terms of action. Jakob Ingebrigtsen broke the 2000m WR at the Brussels Diamond League where Addy Wiley also broke Jenny Simpson‘s collegiate 1500 recordMo Farah retired. Josh Kerr dominated the 5th Avenue Mile, then promptly said he wanted no part of taking on Ingebrigtsen in the DL final. Also, World Cross Country bronze medallist Agnes Ngetich of Kenya, whom Alicia Monson beat at Worlds in the 10,000, ran 29:24 on the roads after going out in 8:27 and 14:25.4 to set a women’s-only world record, Grant Fisher impressed with a 7:33 in Rovereto, USATF head Max Siegel got sued by one of his own board members, and more.

We covered most of those things in the audio version of our weekly recap — LetsRun.com’s Track Talk podcast. Below I talk mainly about Mo Farah’s legacy before sharing some quick thoughts on Addy Wiley.

Mo Farah Hangs ‘Em Up

Farah ahead of the 2018 London Marathon (Bob Martin for Virgin Money London Marathon)

Last week, Mo Farah retired at the age of 40 after finishing 4th at the Great North Run. Before he’d even retired, the pundits started to weigh in on where he ranks among the all-time greats. 1976 Olympic 10,000 bronze medalist and Great North Run founder Brendan Foster called Farah the greatest athlete in any sport in UK history. We can let the Brits compare him to legends in sports we barely pay attention to like crew, cricket, etc., but I want to ask, “Where does he rank among the all-time distance greats?”

Farah won 10 global golds on the track and was unbeatable in championships settings from 2012-2016, sweeping the 5k/10k at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and 2013 and 2015 Worlds.

However, for me, he’s only the fourth-best men’s distance runner of the last 30 years. Without hesitation, I rank Farah behind Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, and Eliud Kipchoge.

Gebrselassie revolutionized distance running on the track. In addition to winning six global golds on the track, he set over 20 world records including world records at the classic distances of 5000 (four times), 10,000 (three times), half marathon and marathon (twice). And he almost certainly would have won more gold medals but in his day there were heats of the 10,000 meters which means he only raced the 5,000 once at a global championship (silver in 1993).

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He took the 5000 world record down from 12:58.39 to 12:39.36, the 10,000 from 26:52.23 to 26:22.75, the half marathon from 59:05 to 58:55 and the marathon from 2:04:55 to 2:03:59. He won four major marathons (Berlin 4 times; Farah’s only major win was 2018 Chicago) and Dubai three times and broke 2:05 three times (Farah never did it, even with supershoes). He also was winning global golds on the track for a longer period of time than Farah — he won his first in 1993 and last in 2000 whereas Farah’s reign started in 2011 and ended in 2017. In terms of pbs at the Olympic distances of 1500, 5000, 10,000, and marathon, he leads Farah 3-1 as Haile G ran 3:31.76, 12:39.36, 26:22.75, and 2:03:59 while Farah’s pbs are 3:28.81, 12:53.11 26:46.57, and 2:05:11. Head to head, he was 1-1 against Farah.

Bekele won eight global golds on the track but also captured World Cross Country 11 times — or six times if you just look at the long race and ignore the abomination that was short course cross country. He also set world records at the 5000 and 10,000 (twice) distances, won two major marathons (Berlin twice), and broke 2:04 twice including a pb of 2:01:41. In terms of pbs at the Olympic distances, he leads Farah 3-1 as Bekele ran 3:32.35, 12:37.35, 26:17.53, and 2:01:41. He also holds a 14-7 head to head record against Farah in all races. Bekele’s reign as the top 10,000 man (2003-09) was basically as long as Farah’s.

Kipchoge won only one global gold on the track but he’s revolutionized marathon running like Gebrselassie did on the track, taking the WR from 2:02:57 to 2:01:09. Counting the two Olympics, he’s won 12 marathon majors and he’s run 13 marathons in his life faster than Farah — and that ignores his 2:00:25 and 1:59:41 exhibitions. In terms of pbs at the Olympic distances, he and Farah are 2-2 as Kipchoge ran 3:33.20, 12:46.53, 26:49.02, and 2:01:09. Kipchoge leads Farah in their head-to-head matchups 13 to 6.

But here’s an interesting question. Might Paul Tergat also deserve to be ranked ahead Farah?

Certainly not if you value track gold medals as Tergat never won a track gold — he had the misfortune of overlapping with Gebrselassie. But Tergat won five straight World XC crowns from 1995 to 1999, set worlds records at 10,000, half marathon (three times), and marathon and won two World Half titles. In terms of pbs, they are 2-2 (Tergat doesn’t have a 1500 pb but he split 3:58.4 for the mile in a 3k one time, and he ran 12:49.87 for 5000, 26:27.85 for 10,000, and 2:04:55 for the marathon) and they never raced each other.

I decided to create a table comparing the number of gold medals, world records, and major marathon wins that the four men compiled during their careers.

Haile G Bekele Kipchoge Tergat Farah
5000 golds 0 2 1 0 5
5000 WR 4 1 0 0 0
10,000 golds 6 6 0 0 5
10,000 WR 3 2 0 1 0
half marathon WR 1 0 0 3 0
half marathon gold 1 0 0 2 0
marathon golds 0 0 2 0 0
marathon WR 2 0 4* 1 0
WMM wins 4 2 12 2 1
World XC gold (long course) 0 6 0 5 0
Total 21 19 19 14 11

*I’m counting Kipchoge’s two sub-2:00s as WRs as they need to count for something

Now I know Farah fans won’t like that chart because it counts a World Half or World Major Marathon win the same as a 10,000 gold on the track. I agree — that is absurd. So let’s discount those by 2/3rds (so 3 WMM wins equals 1 track gold).

Haile G Bekele Kipchoge Tergat  Farah
5000 golds 0 2 1 0 5
5000 WR 4 1 0 0 0
10,000 golds 6 6 0 0 5
10,000 WR 3 2 0 1 0
half marathon WR x 33% 0.33 0 0 1 0
half marathon gold x 33% 0.33 0 0 0.67 0
marathon golds 0 0 2 0 0
marathon WR 2 0 4 1 0
WMM wins x 33% 1.33 0.67 4 0.67 0.33
World XC gold (long course) 0 6 0 5 0
Total  17 17.67 11 9.33 10.33

Of course, truth be told, I’d argue a world xc gold in my opinion should be multiplied by 1.5 or 2 which would once again put Tergat ahead of Farah.


The other important part of Farah’s legacy is his unprecedented rise to the top of the global stage in his late 20s.

Embed from Getty Images

Eliud Kipchoge won his last global gold on the track at age 18.
Haile Gebrselassie won his last global gold on the track at age 27.
Kenenisa Bekele won his last global gold on the track at age 27.
Mo Farah won his first global gold on the track at age 28 and his last at 34.

Normally, when you are talking about all-time great distance runners, their talent JUMPS off the page from the very beginning. Farah was a European junior champ as a teen but far from a world-beater and his big-time global success didn’t happen until he linked up with now-banned coach Alberto Salazar in 2011. The fact that Farah had close ties to both Salazar and controversial coach Jama Aden, who has had a number of athletes banned, is something that will always complicate Farah’s legacy.

Now Farah’s upbringing was far from stable — we recently learned he was the victim of child trafficking — and it’s been exaggerated about how unaccomplished Farah was before he linked up with Salazar. Farah was 6th at Worlds in the 5000 at age 24 in 2007 and 7th at age 26 in 2009 and he did that despite never breaking 13:07.00 in those years (though he went home in the semis at the 2008 Olympics). In 2010, the year before Farah joined Salazar, he won double Euro gold and ran 12:57.94 so it’s interesting to think what could he have accomplished without Salazar.

And it’s not like Farah ever got good at running fast — his lifetime pb is 12:53.11. Do you realize Farah only broke 13:00 four times in his entire career? Ethiopia’s Telahun Haile has done it that many times this year alone, including three under 12:50, and he didn’t even make the Ethiopian Worlds team or finish higher than third in a Diamond League. But those pre-Salazar accomplishments are those of an athlete who might one day snag a medal, not that of a world beater.

Farah’s rise from poverty in Somalia to knighthood in Britain is a rags-to-riches story. At the same time, it makes others very uncomfortable that he clearly benefitted greatly from linking up with Alberto Salazar. It’s certainly not the way a children’s author would write up a fictional story — get sold into childhood slavery, start working with a shady coach and you can beat the world — but real life is complicated and messy.

MB: True / False: Brendan Foster says Mo Farah is the Messi of our sport & greatest British athlete ever (all sports)


Speaking of complicated and messy, US teen phenom Addy Wiley ran 3:59.17 last week in her Diamond League debut in Brussels to break Jenny Simpson‘s longstanding US collegiate record of 3:59.90. As Alison Wade pointed out in her Fast Women newsletter, the reaction to Wiley’s run has been a bit muted “in part because of the widespread concern about her situation.”

Wiley at USAs this year (Kevin Morris photo)

Multiple sources have told LetsRun.com that Wiley is still coached by Lauren Johnson, who is still married to former Huntington head coach Nick Johnson. Nick Johnson has been banned for life by SafeSport for sexual indiscretions with ex-athletes and was convicted of a felony when he impersonated a University of Oregon coach so he could take a teenage recruit on a trip to Oregon.

Multiple runners have alleged in a lawsuit that Nick raped them and doped them with EPO, and Lauren Johnson has admitted that Nick had access to both EPO and testosterone. Nick also is currently facing a felony sexual battery charge.

For the record, let it be clear that we and no one involved in the Huntington scandal has ever accused Addy Wiley of being on drugs. But let’s hope she takes a lesson from the Mo Farah playbook and realizes that continuing to be professionally linked to the Johnsons is not good for her image. If she wants a big contract, she needs to do what Farah did in 2017 and get a fresh start somewhere else, although it should be noted that Farah never won another medal after leaving Salazar.

Last Week’s Home Pages

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