Since Mo Farah’s outstanding performance in winning two gold medals at the 2013 world championships there has been much talk about whethet he is the greatest athlete in British history. As usual with this sort of thing people get carried away in the moment and make sweeping statements without examining the facts.
It is true that Farah has won more gold medals in global championships than any other British athlete but in this he has two great advantages over athletes of the past. Firstly, global championships now take place in three years out of every four compared with one or two years before the 1990s. Secondly, he competes in two events which gives twice the opportunity compared with athletes who have a specialised event. Much has been made of how hard it is to do the 10,000 and 5,000m double in championships but an examination of the past shows that it has been done many times. It is a fact that the best 10K runner is very often the best 5K runner at any given time. The difficulty of doubling up has also been made easier by the fewer rounds in the events compared to the past championships. This isn’t to say that Mo’s achievement isn’t a great one, it just isn’t as exceptional as commentators would have us believe.
In order to make a fair comparison with athletes of the past who had fewer chances of winning medals I believe that the best method is to look at the rankings compiled by the magazine Track & Field News. At the end of each year their experts choose the Top Ten athletes in each event based on results over the year giving special weight to championship results. This means that we can see who was the best athlete in those years before global championships were held so frequently.
Assuming Mo Farah is top this year this gives the following list of British athletes with most appearances at number one.
Jonathan Edwards 7 (all at Triple Jump) 1995/96/98/99/2000/01/02
Seb Coe 6 (at 800m in 1979/81/82/86) (at 1500m in 1979 and 1981)
Daley Thompson 5 (at Decathlon) 1980/82/83/84/86
Steve Cram 5 (at 1500m) 1982/83/85/86/88
Mo Farah 5 (at 5000m in 2011/12/13) (at 10000m in 2012 and 2013)
Coe and Farah were top in two events for two years meaning that Coe had four separate years when he was number one and Farah has three. Thompson and Edwards were in specialised events where they could only achieve one top ranking each year. For me this makes thier performances more notable.
Looking in more detail at their careers
Edwards – 1 Olympic gold, 2 world championships, 1 European title, 3 world records
Coe – 2 Olympic golds,1 European gold, 3 world records at Olympic distances
Cram – 1 world title, 2 European titles,3 Commonwealth titles, 1 world record at Olympic distances
Thompson – 2 Olympic golds, 1 world title, 2 European golds, 3 Commonwealth golds, 4 World records
Farah – 2 Olympic golds, 3 world titles, 3 European titles.
It can be seen that Farah is the only one of the five not to have set a world record and my feeling is that he hasn’t had the strongest opposition when winning his titles.
Taking all these facts into consideration my ranking of the greatest athletes is:
1st Edwards, 2nd Thompson, 3rd Coe, 4th Farah, 5th Cram
In my opinion Farah would have to remain at the top of the world for another two years or break a world record before he overtakes any of the three ahead of him. This is still a possibility but for me Mo Farah isn’t the greatest British athlete… yet.