On a cold night in Manchester, Father Time delivered a chilling and brutal verdict on the end of Mo Farah’s career as an elite athlete.
Farah had clung on to his dream of defending his Olympic 10,000m title in Tokyo, even as his 40th birthday loomed and the niggles began to pester and hinder more than ever before. But in a specially concocted race put on by UK Athletics on the first day of the British Championships – designed to give him every chance of making the Tokyo Games – the stopwatch delivered a blunt truth. He had finished 19 seconds outside the qualifying time of 27min 28sec.
To make matters worse, Farah was forced to race the last third of the race alone, his face etched in pain, the legs no longer revving as in his prime. But to his great credit, he didn’t shirk the question when it was put to him that his final race might be run.
“It’s a tough one,” he replied. “I’ve had an amazing career, thinking about it tonight it’s a bit shocking and I don’t really know what to say. I’m lucky enough to have so many medals, I’m one of these athletes who, if you can’t compete with the best, why bother? Maybe it’s time to spend time with my kids.”
More than 80,000 people had watched Farah win his first Olympic gold at London 2012’s Super Saturday – along with another 17 million people on the BBC. But at the Manchester Regional Arena on Friday there were less than a 1,000 people in the stands – even with cardboard cutouts – and around 20,000 on YouTube.
Initially all looked to be going to plan as Farah, aided by two pacemakers and his Belgian training partner Bashir Abdi, went through halfway two seconds inside the qualifying time. But from then on the race unravelled. And when Abdi dropped out with nine laps remaining Farah was left defenceless against the biting wind and cold. He kept trying but what initially appeared possible quickly became forlorn.
Such were his exertions that after the race, Farah vomited. “You go out there and give it all and that’s all you have,” he admitted. “It’s quite windy. I tried to push and push and I ran my lungs out. That’s all you can do as a human being, give it your all. I’ve had a wonderful career. I’m very grateful. That’s all I had today.”
However Farah refused to blame the cold or the wind, or an ankle injury that had led to him missing the Tokyo qualifying time at the UK trials in Birmingham three weeks ago. “There’s no excuse in terms of conditions, it is what it is,” he said. “I genuinely thought I’d come out here, get the time and then go back to the training camp.”
When asked whether he would be watching the Olympics, Farah’s voice wobbled. “It’s going to be tough,” he said, “Of course it’s going to be tough. But it’s the Olympics. If you can’t compete, then you’ve got to watch at home.”
Last year these Championships were watched by a peak audience of 1.4m on BBC2. But, for the first time in decades, they are not on terrestrial TV this year. It meant that when Britain’s brightest Olympic medal hope, Dina Asher-Smith, sauntered into the semi-finals of the 100m in a time of 11.28sec there were just a few thousand watching on UK Athletics’ YouTube channel.
Looking on was the UKA chief executive, Jo Coates, who defended her decision to stream the trials on the internet after the BBC refused to pay. “As CEO, I don’t want to devalue the sport, and I think giving it away for free does that,” she said. “People have said the trials are not on TV but they are. They are on a lot of smart TVs via YouTube. And we think that’s a better way to showcase the sport than it being hidden on the red button, and us having to pay for it to be on the red button.”
Coates revealed that the UKA was spending £40,000 to put on the trials – but said it would “cost the sport probably a quarter of a million pounds to be on the BBC”.
In the men’s 100m, Reece Prescod – who has barely been seen since winning the European silver in 2018 – looked comfortable in qualifying in 20.64. But James Ellington, who had hoped to qualify for Tokyo four years after a serious motorbike accident, is out after running just 11.00sec.
Meanwhile the elite level career of Martyn Rooney, who was an inspirational member of GB’s 4x400m relay squad for over a decade, also looks to be over after he finished last in his 400m heat in 49.38sec.