I think I’ll always remember where I was when I saw Mo Farah win the gold medal in the 10,000 meters. During the early stages, I sat in my living room, squirming and restless in my easy chair. I winced when I saw Mo nearly trip as two Eritreans passed him. As the race sped up and the number of laps relentlessly wound down, I became more tense. Finally, I couldn’t sit any longer: I stood up in front of my television, my fists clenched, willing him to break free of the Kenyans and Ethiopians who encircled him. When Mo finally got away, I started shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”; I didn’t care a jot if the neighbours thought I’d gone insane. When Mo crossed the line, his eyes glassy with exertion and perhaps disbelief, I shouted, “Yes!” My other half, bemused and still sitting on the sofa smiled at me indulgently. “Hello?” she asked.
If Twitter was any indication, I was not alone in my exuberance. It was a glorious moment for Britain: a Somali immigrant, a former refugee, raised in London, had become the toast of the nation. Although there was already plenty of evidence to prove that multiculturalism had benefitted Britain, Mo’s triumph (and Jessica Ennis’ heptathlon gold) made the deceits and prejudices of the BNP and English Defence League appear even more pernicious and ridiculous.
It didn’t take Mo long to seek out his family: his wife is heavily pregnant, he lovingly embraced her. He then ran with his young stepdaughter Rihanna along the track; the Union Flag was draped over his shoulders. I wondered what it must be like for his child to be in London, with all the eyes of the spectators and the cameras of the world’s media focused on her and her Dad, the deafening sound of thousands cheering, the bright lights, the scent of grass, the cool breezes whipping through the cavernous stadium. It will likely remain forever in her memory; when she is very old, she will be able to tell her grandchildren about the night that their great-grandfather became a legend.
When Mo spoke to the press, he said something which caught my attention: he stated that as part of his training, he runs 120 miles a week. In other words, he runs approximately the distance between Bradford and Coventry every seven days. It’s difficult to see how he was able to fit a life around this: but it is clear that he found the time to not only become a champion but also a loving father and a husband. Once he runs his last race and his final medal is placed under glass, he has much else to occupy him and many things which he can do. While running the race has been a major part of his life, it is not all of his life.
In contrast, Félix Sánchez, the winner of the 400 metres hurdles, seemed to be an absolute wreck after his victory: after he crossed the line, he let out a disturbing cry that sounded like it came from the pit of his soul. When on the podium, he couldn’t stop the tears from flowing: it seemed odd that a winner would be so disconsolate. The scale of Sánchez’s triumph is enormous: he first won the title in Athens in 2004. He didn’t qualify for the final in 2008: his beloved grandmother, who raised him, died prior to the preliminary heats and this affected his performance. However, he is a man who apparently takes defeat to heart: for example, he wore a red flashing wristband between 2001 and 2004 to remind him of the fact that he didn’t qualify for the 400m hurdles final in the 2000 Sydney Games. After his Beijing debacle, it appears that he spent four difficult years climbing back up to the podium; his imperatives were made all the more intense by a promise he made to his deceased grandmother to win an additional medal. I can only imagine his investment of early hours, pain, sweat, and his muscles and joints fighting against the effects of overuse and age. I flinch at the thought of him having to use a weights machine to build up his legs and the sounds of metal wheels turning and squeaking cartilage in his knees. He achieved victory perhaps because he was honed to a razor’s edge of performance that less ambitious and perhaps less obsessive men could not achieve. He attained his objective: so now what? He is 34: will he try again in 4 years? Win or lose, then what? He did not run a victory lap with a daughter or son who would carry his legend forward in time.
It is to be hoped that the Dominican Republic has sports psychologists to hand; certainly, if I were a member of the International Olympic Committee, I would have been somewhat alarmed by Sánchez’s podium breakdown and would want to make certain of his well being. Hopefully he has also more in his life than what has hitherto been seen or reported in the press: it has been said that he had “Grandmother” written in Spanish on his shoes and a picture of his grandmother and himself pinned to his racing bib. It seems like achieving victory has been everything to him; he may not have had time to consider what lay beyond the race’s end.
Sánchez is not only athlete who has been consumed by the pursuit of excellence: Michael Phelps once stated that all he did was eat, sleep and swim. He now is the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympic games and officially, he’s retired; now what will he do? Theoretically, anything he likes: and perhaps he has a sense of humour which will help him when he is no longer the champion. The same assessment can be made of Usain Bolt: his antics, such as late nights spent with the Swedish women’s handball team are funny, perhaps even a bit peculiar, but at least when he hangs up his spikes and is no longer the great runner, he will remain a larger than life personality. But how many athletes, winners and losers alike, have nothing but their training regimen and those few moments of competition in which they can shine? What will happen to them when the flames of London are doused and they board the flights or trains heading for home? Yes, by all means celebrate their courage and achievements: paint the letter boxes gold, issue commemorative stamps, buy the pins and t-shirts, even raise a glass or two. But hope too that more than gold, the athletes have that which should be the birthright of all human beings: a chance at being happy.