Alan Hubbard

Is Brendan Foster right when he says that Mo Farah is now the greatest-ever British sportsman?

Could Foster, as a fellow distance runner, be ever-so-slightly biased in his laudatory assessment after commentating for the BBC on Farah's World Championships 5,000 metres triumph in Beijing at the weekend, a feat which, added to his earlier 10,000m gold, secured an unprecedented treble double gold at major championships, i.e the Olympics and worlds?

It also secured Farah’s spot high on the pedestal of sporting history. But the greatest British sportsman ever ? I don’t wish to sound curmudgeonly but I am not so sure about that.

Had Brendan qualified his comment by naming Farah the greatest-ever British athlete I might have concurred, though this is also open to question.

You had the impression that what Foster wanted to say was that he considered Farah the greatest sporting figure the world has ever seen, not just Britain. But that certainly would have been a claim too far.

Of course, such arguments over who is the best-ever at this or that in sport are totally subjective and have kept the beer flowing in hostelries for a lifetime.

Comparisons either with the same or different disciplines are invidious because of prevailing situations, not least the strength of the opposition at the time.

No doubt Farah is a truly magnificent athlete, peerless as a distance runner. But does his achievement really outweigh the contributions others have made to British sport?

Let’s be frank. What Farah does is run quicker than anyone else over long distances. No more, no less.

Unlike some other sports the skill is more in the preparation than the execution.

And he is by no means the most be-medalled British competitor in history.

Sir Steve Redgrave won golds at five consecutive Olympic Games in his 16 years of rowing supremacy. And there is Sir Chris Hoy, with six Olympic cycling golds and 11 world titles.

Brendan Foster considers Mo Farah to be Britain's greatest sportsman
Brendan Foster considers Mo Farah to be Britain's greatest sportsman ©Getty Images

When you talk of sporting greats you must also embrace Sir Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore for their contribution to football, not least in lifting the morale of a nation in England’s only World Cup victory. Though the Scots will demur!

Charlton remains the only English footballer to win the League, the European Cup and the World Cup. And he survived a fatal air crash in Munich. His name remains synonymous with English football throughout the world.

I have lost count of the times I have encountered the greeting “English? Ah, Bobby Charlton!” in far-flung places.

And how about British winners Sir Bradley Wiggins  and Chris Froome in the Tour de France, said to be the most arduous sporting event known to man?

Or Britain’s finest - and bravest - horseman of all time, National Hunt legend A P McCoy? Or Daley Thompson, with two Olympic golds achieved not simply just by running, but nine other athletic disciplines to attain the perfect ten.

Then there is Sir Roger Bannister whose historic breaking of the four-minute mile barrier, albeit with a little help from his friends as pacemakers, remains to this day as a literal milestone of global impact. Incidentally the simple spikes worn by Sir Roger, CBE, now 86, when he broke the record at Oxford’s Iffley Road in May 1954 in 3min 59.4sec will be auctioned at Christie’s in London on September 10 and are expected to raise £50,000 (£77,000/€70,000) for charity.

Maybe a similar gesture by Farah, with the shoes that have brought him such fame and fortune, might enhance his still cautious popularity in Britain.

Something else that might edge him closer towards the all-round greatness that Foster promotes is a public denouncement of the atrocities happening in the name of his religion; but so far he has not followed fellow celebrated Muslims, notably boxers Amir Khan and Muhammad Ali (unquestionably the greatest sporting figure of all time) in doing so. Why not?

However. one of Somalia-born Farah’s worthiest off-track achievements is that he is a wonderful advert for immigration.

Although athletically weaned in the UK his career has been fine-tuned in America, where the clouds of controversy still enshroud his coach Alberto Salazar. The doping innuendo involving Salazar inevitably cast a shadow over Farah despite not a a shred of evidence of wrongdoing.

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The greatest? - Sebastian Coe wins the 1500 metres final at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 ©Getty Images

So how satisfying it must have been for Mo that London’s Sunday Times, who have been at the hub of those allegations, have given such prominence and fulsome acclaim to his accomplishments in Beijing.

The irony cannot have been lost on new International Association of Athletics Federations President Lord Coe, who, termed the newspaper’s campaign ”a declaration of war” on athletics and professes empathy with Farah, describing him as “a wonderful athlete".

Yet interestingly Seb picks his words as carefully as he did his footsteps on the track when asked about Farah’s worthiness to be called The Greatest.

He says: “If you look at the medals he has won in major championships and the fact that this is now the second time he has successfully doubled up you would be hard pressed to say he wasn’t the most successful distance runner.

“But then there are other things that you need to throw into the balance: world records, times, speeds, all those sort of things. But look, he is a wonderful athlete.”

Naturally, Coe is too modest to say so himself, but there is a strong case, in my opinion, for the good lord to have the label of the all-time greatest British sportsman pinned to his own running vest.

Perhaps I should declare a degree of bias here for Coe is a long-time friend but in all honesty I cannot think of anyone who has made a greater contribution to British sport. Can you?

Apart from his two Olympic golds and two silvers, a dozen world records, one enduring over a couple of decades, Coe won the 2012 Olympics for London and then orchestrated what is perceived as arguably the best of Games.

And now, at the zenith of his career, he has become the world leader of his sport and potentially its saviour.

So hang on a Mo, Brendan.

For me Coe beats Farah to the tape in the race to be recognised as Britain’s greatest. And it’s not even a photo-finish.