Mo Farah after his 5k victory at the london Anniversary Games
Mo Farah after his 5K victory at the London Anniversary Games.

Mo Farah had not competed much in 2016. While Farah, who won gold in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the London Olympics, as well as gold in both races at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, the Brit had not run competitively all that much in 2016. And his results have been up and down as well.

But on July 23rd, returning to the stadium he won double Olympic glory, Farah restored faith in his fans, and gave hope to the possibility of being the first person since legendary Finn, Lasse Virén, to accomplish the double-double: winning gold in the 5K an 10K in two consecutive Olympics. At the London Anniversary Games, Farah won the 5,000-meter race convincingly, finishing well ahead with his trademark kick. His time of 12 minutes 59.29 seconds was his best since a tune-up to the London Games in June, 2012. In other words, his 33-year-old legs are feeling young.

“This is my best ever form heading into a major championships,” he is quoted as saying in The Mirror. “I am in good shape and it’s great to win before Rio. I just have to keep my feet on the ground as it’s harder to defend an Olympics than win it first time because people have had four years to work out how to beat you.”

Farah winning 5k at 2012 London Olympics
Farah is pictured celebrating his sensational 5,000 men’s final victory at the 2012 London Olympics

Four-time Olympic gold medalist, Michael Johnson, knows something about the challenges of repeating as champion, and so he knows Farah has to be wary of the competition. “It gets more challenging for Farah now he’s older. He’s dominated but the Kenyans are trying to figure out how to beat him. They are coming up with a plan and hoping to catch him on an off-day. It’ll be fun because it’ll make it even more competitive.”

The Kenyans agree. Farah’s 10,000-meter rival from Kenya, Bedan Karoki has said, “he has always beaten us in the last lap, but we have worked on that and hope to turn the tables against him this time in Rio. We are very good in lapping — indeed much better than him — but he waits until it matters most, and that is what we have worked on this time.”

Farah agrees, saying as much after his victory in the London Anniversary Games.

But while there is little evidence to show in 2016 that Farah has what it takes to win the 10K in Rio, at the very least, he is the clear favorite for the 5,000-meter race in Rio.

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red blood cells

The fuel for muscles are oxygen. The more oxygen, the more rapidly and powerfully muscles can flex. Some people thanks to their genetic makeup have a significantly higher aerobic capacity, or ability to consume oxygen, which enables them to go harder and faster in highly aerobic sports like running, swimming or biking over longer distances.

In the 1970s, those seeking to gain an edge used hormone treatments, for example epitestosterone. The sometimes dramatic effects on the body created suspicion of doping, particularly with regards to the East German team. But a new treatment, which was at the time legal, was becoming popular – blood doping. Also known as blood packing or blood boosting, blood doping was the act of drawing an athlete’s blood prior to a competition, and then after a time, re-introducing that blood back into the athlete’s system via transfusion.

The pioneer research from Sweden, Dr Bjorn Ekblom, discovered that separating the red blood cells from a quart of blood, refrigerating it, and then re-injecting it a month later increased the efficiency of that athlete by 25%, according to Daniel Rosen, who wrote the book “Dope: A history of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today.” This research was no secret. Ekblom published it in a paper called “Responses to Exercise After Blood Loss and Reinfusion.”

Dope Daniel Rosen

Blood doping was not illegal at the time. However, in the realm of competition, it was considered sneaky enough not to talk about. But people did whisper about it. And people whispered about Lasse Virén, the Finn who accomplished the only Olympic Double-Double, by winning the grueling 5,000m and 10,000m races in two successive Olympiads – Munich in 1972 and Montreal in 1976.

People whispered that Virén only performed well in the big tent events, but in the years between the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, Virén did not reach champion levels. As Rosen wrote, “given the seemingly few and admittedly poor results in between the Olympics, some have argued that there must have been a secret source from Virén obtained his speed. Virén, on the other hand, insists that he has never blood doped and never needed to. By focusing on the Olympics, to the exclusion of other events, he built up his fitness specifically for those few events every four years.”

Blood doping was officially declared an illegal practice in 1986. But autologous blood doping, the act of reinjecting your own red blood cells back into your system, is not reliably traceable. One test that currently exists requires an athlete to breathe in carbon monoxide, which understandably, athletes balk at.

Lasse Viren wins 5000m gold in Montreal
Lasse Virén of Finland winning gold in the 5,000 meters in Montreal

When you fall in a highly competitive race, it’s over for you, particularly for sprinters. But even in long-distance foot races, falling not only places you way in the back of the pack, it becomes a psychological burden as you see your competitors fly by you.

And yet, Lasse Virén of Finland was not fazed. Virén was competing in the 10,000 meters in the Munich Olympics in 1972. It was the 12th lap of a 25-lap race when Virén’s leg hit the leg of Belgian runner, Emiel Puttemans, sending Virén tumbling to the cinder track. Famed Tunisian runner, Mohamed Gammoudi, also took a nasty spill tripping over Virén’s body. Virén, who fell behind by 20 meters, got up quickly, and re-started those long strides, getting back into the race after four laps.

In the last lap and a half, Virén stepped on the gas. But as this thrilling account from The Guardian relates, the man whose leg sent Virén to the ground 12 laps earlier was now breathing down Virén’s back.

At the bell, Virén raised the pace yet again, and Yifter was unable to respond. The air was suddenly too thick for his limbs. But Puttemans held on. The small Belgian, his face contorting with determination, closed the slight gap that Virén had opened up. ‘I believed I had a chance to win the gold medal,’ he said later. ‘Lasse was five metres ahead and I knew I must take my chance going into the final bend.’ So Puttemans moved on to Virén’s shoulder. The Finn accelerated. ‘As we came round to the home straight,’ Puttemans said, ‘I knew the gold was his.’ You could see Puttemans absorb this painful truth, but make an instantaneous reappraisal of ambition: he looked over his shoulder, to make sure Yifter was far enough behind him to be no threat, and settled for silver.

Virén not only won, but smashed the world record for the 10,000 meter race that had stood for seven years. Virén went on to win the 5,000 meter competition in the Munich Games, accomplishing the so-called “double”, which had been done only three times prior to Virén, and three times after him. Even more amazingly, Virén did it again, winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the Montreal Games in 1976, the only “Double-Double” ever.

You can watch Virén years later watching himself win the 10,000 meter race in Munich on video below.