Why Mo Farah Is A Nerveless Assassin

To mark twenty-five years of British Esquire, we recall twenty-five men who have shaped the country in the years we first went to print. Here, Tim Lewis on the paralysing presence of quadruple Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah

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Before I interviewed the writer Malcolm Gladwell for this magazine in 2013, I'd never thought especially deeply about Mo Farah. He was a good, perhaps great, athlete, an affable but not outlandishly charismatic guy with an idiotic signature celebration: the Mobot. Thanks to its inventor Clare Balding, the 33-year-old Somali-born Briton now not only had to outrun the best Kenyans and Ethiopians but choreograph a naff pose as he crossed the line, like one member of the Village People stood up by the remainder of the sextet.

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But then Gladwell had a counter-intuitive way of looking at Farah: he was not so much an athlete as a Jedi. Gladwell had met him once briefly and Farah had made a strong impression. "I shook his hand and chatted to him and it was clear he was the alpha male," Gladwell recalled. "He just has a personality that seemed to exert itself on matters. He dictates the terms of races to people who are faster than him, which I find fascinating and hilarious."

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Gladwell was right. Throughout his career, certainly since 2011, Farah has consistently beaten opponents who have superior personal bests. It  shouldn't make any sense. Gladwell picked one event, the 5,000m final in the 2012 London Olympics — though it applies to most events Farah takes part in — and called it both "an act of collective suicide by the African runners" and "the strangest race I've ever seen". On paper, Farah should not have won, so how did he triumph so convincingly? 

"I don't know," said Gladwell, shaking his head. "He's the big dog, they just do what the big dog says."

We think of athletics as the ultimate physical test, but Farah is proof that it is really a battle of competing psychologies. Psychology in sport typically means a manager such as José Mourinho saying silly things to inspire footballers with IQs similar to the numbers on the back of their shirts. What Farah does, though, is much more subtle.

Take his tactic of often starting races very slowly. It's a really bad idea to give your opponents
a 40m head start in an Olympic final. But it works for Farah because: a) it lets his rivals know that he is so supremely confident of winning that he can afford to just jog along for a bit; and b) Farah knows that, like any good horror film, it's what you can't see that really messes with your mind.

I got Farah all wrong. He's a nerveless assassin, and his paralysing presence has now earned him four Olympic gold medals. He will probably never set a world record, but you would put your money on him every time in a head-to-head. But I do stand by one thing: the Mobot is a terrible celebration.  

The special 25th anniversary of Esquire is out now