RW PAYS TRIBUTE TO THE MAN AND WOMEN IN OUR SPORT WHO INSPIRED US OVER THE LAST 12 MONTHS
TAKE A BOW, MO FARAH AND OTHERS
THE FIGHTER Mo Farah
YOU KNOW you’ve made it when the whole nation can collectively dispense with your surname: Daley, Paula, Jess... Mo’s ascension to this exalted echelon of UK sports stars has come about thanks to the well-documented victories that have made the 33-year-old Britain’s most successful track athlete of all time.
His stunning triumphs in Rio made him a double World and Olympic Champion over both 5000m and 10,000m; he is the undisputed current king of distance running, but that’s only part of the reason we have chosen to pay homage here.
Those beautifully executed wins may have looked like the inevitable spoils coming to an athlete blessed with a supreme gift, but it’s only when you look deeper and begin to examine what it took for him not only to reach these stratospheric heights but to stay at the top that you really get the measure of this remarkable man. What makes Mo a true hero is not his elegant stride or his brutal finishing kick, but the indomitable fighting spirit that have shaped them and him.
Since coming to England from Somalia at the age of eight, Mo has had to fight. Overcoming playground bullies, struggling first to learn the language and later, as a young athlete, to make ends meet in his chosen vocation. In his early 20s he struggled to unlock his potential, something which he worried was having a direct effect on the welfare of his family. Athletics offers nothing like the riches of, say, football and a period of (relative) mediocrity between 2008 and 2011 meant sponsorship deals were jeopardised, bonus deals retracted and pay cuts suffered. So Mo moved his wife and stepchild (the couple later had three children together) to the other side of the world and the Nike Project in Oregon, US, where he set about turning himself from the guy who faded down the home straight, to the seemingly unbeatable megastar we saw triumph yet again in Rio. Training twice a day six times a week; clocking up to 130 weekly miles interspersed with intense strength, conditioning and flexibility sessions in the gym, running in the howling wind, the lashing rain, the cold and dark of winter, when the rest of us start spending a lot more quality time with Netflix.
In the second half of 2015 and into last year Mo was caught up in the doping scandal that swept through track and field, all because of his association with coach Alberto Salazar, whose methods had come under intense scrutiny. Instead of being able to focus solely on training for the Olympics Farah was forced to spend months fighting to defend his innocence amid a frenzy of media attention. In the midst of, and possibly because of, this distraction, questions were raised over his form and mindset when he finished a distant third at the World Half Marathon Championships in Cardiff in March, crossing the finish line in visible distress.
He may have been knocked down, but on the Olympic stadium track in Rio, he picked himself up and fought his way back to become the first distance runner to win a ‘double double’ since the great ‘Flying Finn’ Lasse Viren (who took 5000m and 10,000m gold at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics) and thus cement his place in the pantheon of modern distance greats alongside Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat and Kenenisa Bekele. The richly deserved knighthood may be pending, but in the meantime we salute you, Sir Mo.
‘ THIS IS
Congo,’ says Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo, 28. ‘ Here, people run to save their lives.’
Since 1996, civil wars have killed nearly six million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo – more than any other conflict since the Second World War. One survey found that more than 1,000 women are raped every day in the beleaguered central African state, and there are an estimated 30,000 child soldiers.
Salukombo and his family fled their village of Kirotshe, near the Rwandan border, in 2001, and ended up in the United States, where he became an All-american school champion in cross-country running and on the track.
Salukombo graduated from university in 2012 and then started Projectkirotshe, a youth running programme with an educational focus; it’s based in his former village. He raised enough money to send 13,000 textbooks, 55 computers and athletic equipment to supply the village’s new community learning centre and running team. Then he returned home for the first time, to launch his vision of turning kids into students and runners.
Through donations, the project – now called the Kirotshe Foundation – pays their school and higher education expenses. In a country where militants lure kids with guns and money, education is critical, says Salukombo.
The kids, most of whom have been left orphans by the war, participate in running groups and compete in local and national events. ‘ By running together, they’re creating a family that most of them never had,’ says Salukombo.
He spent much of last year training with his top runners as well as coaching them. In August, he and his best runner, 5000m ace Beatrice Kamuchanga, then 18, went to Rio to represent DR Congo in the Olympics. Kamuchanga didn’t advance out of her heat and Salukombo finished 113th in the marathon (in 2:28:54), but it was being there that mattered most, he says. ‘The Games gave the youths the confidence to believe they can get that first Olympic medal for Congo.’
Salukombo is now back in the US, fundraising and coaching his runners remotely. He remains determined to help as many kids as he can. ‘ Why not use my strength to try to inspire them?’
IF EVER THERE WAS A STORY that confirms the redemptive power of running it is surely that of 34-year-old Ben Smith.
Five years ago he was a smoking, heavy-drinking, overweight depressive; on October 5 last year he completed a record-breaking 401st marathon in as many days. It marked the end of an extraordinary journey.
Smith was bullied at school, which led to depression and two suicide attempts in adulthood. After suffering a mini-stroke at the age of 29 and coming out as gay, he planned an adventure that would raise awareness about bullying, as well as helping him to turn his own life around. The 401 challenge (the401challenge.co.uk), would entail running around the UK and, in the process, raising money for two charities close to Smith’s heart: Stonewall and Kidscape.
Having sold his house to fund the challenge and with the constant support of a new partner, Kyle, who gave up his own job and PHD studies to help out, Smith set off from his hometown of Bristol on September 1 2015, running self-planned routes during the week and taking part in official marathons at weekends, including the Isle of Wight, Bristol to Bath, Brighton, Greater Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Along the way he battled injuries to his spine, knees, heels and shins but was helped by almost 9,500 people who had read about the challenge and who turned up to run with him for a leg or two.
Four hundred and one days – as well as 10,506 miles, 22 pairs of trainers, 2.5 million kcals, 19kg of weight lost and £307,000 of funds raised – later he breasted the tape at a special event in Bristol, where he was greeted by Kyle, his family and well wishers.
Following a three-month ‘cool-down’ period to bring his body back to normal, Smith continues his work – he plans to set up the 401 Foundation, which will work to build confidence and self-esteem in children.
Salukombo is determined to help as many kids in his former home as he can. (Inset) Some of the children who have benefited from the Kirotshe Foundation.