Farah remains Britain’s most popular athlete by a mile but at the Great Edinburgh International XCountry there were the first stirrings of a changing of the guard.
Even after defeat they chanted Mo Farah’s name like a mantra, the cries of “Mo! Mo!” growing more urgent as the chances of a selfie with him faded. The reaction is similar whenever he runs in Britain. For all the negative headlines around the United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation into his coach, Alberto Salazar, and the questioning of his relationship with Jama Aden, the Somali coach who is under investigation by Spanish police, Farah remains this island’s most popular athlete by a mile.
However, at the Great Edinburgh International XCountry on Saturday there were the first signs of a changing of the guard; a primitive sketch of the post-Mo era. It could be heard in the enormous reaction for the young Scottish athlete Laura Muir, who on Wednesday had shattered Liz McColgan’s UK indoor 5,000m record by 14 seconds and showed no ill-effects as she anchored Britain to victory in a 4x1km race.
And in the spirited response to her fellow Scot Callum Hawkins, who surged ahead at the start of the 8km men’s race and was caught only metres from the line. Farah, meanwhile, was 43 seconds back in seventh.
It would be foolish to overly analyse Farah’s defeat. He is a track animal not a mudlark and he had been unwell over Christmas. Barring injury, he will be a prohibitive favourite to win 5,000m and 10,000m golds at the world championships in London. Yet as he heads towards the marathon in 2018 and retirement probably after 2020, it is increasingly clear that Muir’s performances could soon mark her out as a mainstream star.
True, the 23-year-old veterinary student has been climbing the path to world class for some time, having been fifth in the world championships over 1500m in 2015 and seventh in the Olympics in Rio – when she put everything into trying to stay with Genzebe Dibaba’s 57-second third lap and saw her dreams of gold end in a crushing flood of lactic acid.
Rather than drown her sorrows, though, Muir instead did something extraordinary: she went to Paris and smashed her own British 1500m record by more than two seconds.
It was barely remarked upon at the time. The Olympics were over, the football season was back to dominating the sporting news and Muir – having left Brazil without a medal – was not a name on people’s lips. Yet hers was a performance for the ages.
Officially her time of 3.55.22 is the 16th fastest 1500m time in history but it is not much of a stretch to suggest she could be even higher in the rankings. After all, four times above her were set by Eastern bloc athletes during the cold war, when state-sponsored doping was the norm.
Nine Chinese athletes are also in the top 15 – having set quicker times during the 1990s when the notorious coach Ma Junren ruled the roost. Last year the IAAF said it was investigating a letter from Wang Junxia, who is fourth on the list, saying that she and her team-mates were forced to take illegal drugs. Two other Chinese athletes above Muir were also withdrawn from the 2000 Olympics after blood tests indicated they may have taken EPO.
Then there is Dibaba, the reigning world 1500m record holder, who was on site when her coach, Aden, was arrested last year by Spanish police on suspicion of doping after EPO was found in the hotel they and other athletes were staying in, after a three-year operation by the IAAF.
Aden has not been charged and denies wrongdoing and Dibaba has never tested positive for banned drugs. Yet, rightly or wrongly, she is under suspicion by association.
Muir’s coach, Andy Young, meanwhile, believes that more is to come, given that she only runs between 40 to 50 miles a week, around 10-20 fewer than most of her 1500m rivals. “The mix of fast- and slow-twitch fibres that she has gives her the ability to sprint and also run a marathon,” he says.
“I’ve never seen someone with that sort of capability. Many years ago I used to train with Paula Radcliffe when I was at Loughborough and she obviously had a huge engine but she didn’t have a turn of speed. If you look at Kelly Holmes she had that huge turn of speed but she didn’t have that engine – but Laura has both.”
Psychologically he also believes that Muir is a very different athlete now to when she first trained with him in 2011. “She didn’t like to hurt herself in training,” he says. “She wouldn’t go into the red zone – it took her a good 18 months to get used to that. But when she broke the indoor 5,000m record she ran 16 laps on her own out in front, which is mind-blowing.”
Muir is yet to win a medal at a major championships but her time is approaching fast. Expect the European Indoors in Belgrade, where she hopes to tackle both the 1500m and the 3,000m, to be the moment she catapults into the mainstream.