Last Friday, Great Britain’s Mo Farah, was outkicked to finish second in the 3,000 meters at the Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar. The defeat ended a nearly two-year winning streak on the track for the reigning Olympic and IAAF world champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, which got us thinking: how significant was Mo Farah’s “streak” to begin with, and how does it stack up against other feats of longevity in the sport?
As LetsRun.com reports, this was Farah’s first loss on the track since July of 2013. The man who ended Farah’s reign on that sweltering, 96-degree night was 21-year-old Hagos Gebrhiwet of Ethiopia, who finished second behind Mo in the 5,000 at the 2013 IAAF World Championships, and holds the world junior record in the event. It’s early in the season, and Farah is still the favorite to take gold in the distances at the IAAF World Championships in August in Beijing, but Friday night showed that he is not invincible. As LetsRun writes, “As much as Farah would have liked to keep his winning streak alive, this [i.e. his defeat] makes the summer racing season much more exciting for fans.”
But one should always be wary of winning streaks that are qualified by language like “hasn’t lost since . . .” If you don’t compete very often, it’s harder for you to lose. In 2014, the year Mo Farah trained for and raced the London Marathon, where he finished eighth, he contested a grand total of four races on the track. A versatile high school track athlete will compete in more events in a weekend meet than Mo did in all of 2014. As such, we shouldn’t afford Farah’s undefeated stretch more attention than it deserves.
Ditto his loss last weekend. The 3,000 meters is not an official championship distance, meaning it isn’t an Olympic or IAAF World Championship event, and most top runners will not race it very often. As proof of this, consider that the current British record in the distance (7:32.79) was set way back in 1982. Farah was expected to crush this time on Friday, but failed to do so, in all likelihood because extraordinarily warm conditions made the race a more tactical affair. If you watch it unfold, you will see pacemakers get way out in front in the beginning with none of the runners committing to go with them. This was an unusual race, run in unusual circumstances, so the upset isn’t all that surprising or significant.
As Farah told the IAAF after his defeat, “My main focus is not the 3000 . . . it doesn’t matter that much to lose in an opening meeting of the Diamond League. I tried for a late kick in the final 200 meters but it just wasn’t there.”
Streaks, Farah’s comment suggests, are less important than being able to win when it counts most. In that regard, no track athlete’s career is more telling than that of Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest miler of all-time.
That isn’t hyperbole. El Guerrouj, who hails from Morocco and whose world records in the mile and 1,500 meters have remained in place for over 15 years, dominated the middle distances during the mid-‘90s to the early ‘00s in a way that no one had done before, or has since. During one period, starting in early 2001, El Guerrouj won 27 consecutive races. At another time, just prior to that, he won 24 races in a row. (Mo’s best streak stands at 11 straight wins.) In his main focus events, the mile and 1,500, Guerrouj won all but three races between August 1996 and July 2004.
Unfortunately, two of those three loses were in Olympic 1,500 finals. In Atlanta, in 1996, Guerrouj famously took a plunge as he vied for the lead heading into the bell lap, while in Sydney, in 2000, he was outkicked with 50 meters to go by Kenyan Noah Ngeny. The best middle distance runner ever, it seemed, was destined for tragedy in the races the mattered most.
That might have been the teary epilogue to the maestro’s career were it not for his performance at the 2004 Athens Games where, in a swan song par excellence, he took gold in both the 1,500 and 5,000. Watch that 1,500 final. When Bernard Lagat draws level with El Guerrouj in the final straightaway, you are sure the unthinkable is going to happen again, but the Moroccan somehow finds a way to prevail, resulting in some of the most moving track and field footage you will ever see.
But is El Guerrouj the most consistently dominant track athlete of the modern era? Well, no. That title can only go to 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses, who won Olympic gold in the event in 1976 and 1984 (the 1980 Moscow Games, you may recall, were less well attended). Between August 26, 1977 and June 4, 1987, Moses won every single 400-meter final he competed in, totaling 107 races in a row.
Now that’s a streak.