4 Mar

Running Rivalries Great For Sport

Andy Vernon and Mo Farah

The recent Twitter row between Mo Farah and Andy Vernon caused a stir in running circles ahead of last month’s Indoor Grand Prix. Vernon sarcastically lamented the presence of 'another stellar field against @Mo_Farah on home turf this weekend at Birmingham #joke'.

The double Olympic champion bit back, the row escalated and ultimately took us to a bizarre realm with Farah claiming Taylor Swift could run faster than his British rival. It was a long way from last summer when the pair posed together with Union Jacks at the European Championships after winning gold and silver in the 10,000m.

Farah of course got the last - and loudest - laugh when he smashed the two mile record in Birmingham. The row itself was juvenile, puerile and unseemly. Yet let’s be honest, it was brilliant, captivating fun. It’s a very modern rivalry with barbs traded on social media much to the delight of the peeping Tom public.

It’s rivalries that keep sport interesting. Running needs them just as such as any other sport. Arguably more so, as football, rugby and cricket cast their large shadows over the sporting landscape.

There have been some great rivalries in running over the years, thankfully more of them have been on-track rather than the off-track needle between Farah and Vernon. Perhaps the most famous of all is that between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Before he was the face of London 2012, Lord Coe could run a bit. His clean-cut middle class, middle England media-friendly image was at odds with the gruff, rugged Ovett.

They traded world records over from 800m to one mile from 1979 to 1981, yet steadfastly avoided racing one another. It was only at championships where their paths crossed, most famously at the 1980 Olympic Games, where they would race over Coe’s specialist distance of 800m and Ovett’s best distance of 1500m to determine who was the greater.

Famously they each triumphed at the others preferred distance. It was imperfect, yet perfect. There was nothing satisfying in the rivalry between Zola Budd and Mary Decker-Slaney at the 1984 Olympic Games. Budd was a vulnerable figure. Aged 17, she broke the world record for 5000m in her native South Africa, but with apartheid still in force, the nation was banned from international competition. With a British grandparent, she was fast-tracked citizenship to compete for Great Britain at the 1984 Olympics. The young runner was a target for anti-apartheid protesters and British runners who felt she was stealing Olympic selection from them. Yet, it all seemed small fry when it came to the Los Angeles Olympics where she clashed with the home favourite Mary Decker-Slaney.

It resulted in the American crashing to the ground and out of contention in the women’s 3000m. With the baying crowd howling their derision, Budd faded to seventh. The American media hounded Budd and she became a hate figure. It was only years later when Slaney admitted Budd had not been at fault, but by then the damage had been done. Budd’s career dwindled and she never became the force she might have been on the track.

An altogether friendlier rivalry was that between long-distance legends Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. The Kenyan Tergat always held the upper hand on cross country, winning five World Championships with his Ethiopian rival left in his wake. But it was Smiley Haile who won the bigger ones, twice he beat Tergat to Olympic 10,000m gold, winning sprint finishes at the 1996 and 2000 Games. Theirs was a rivalry that was intense, but brimming with respect.  

So what next for the Farah and Vernon? Will the next chapter be played out with their feet or will it be a tweet?