Saturday, August 12, 2017

Greatest Long Distance Runners

Last weekend, we saw Usain Bolt get bronze in his final individual race (and today we saw him collapse to the track injured in his final race period).  Today it was Mo Farah's turn.  The greatest long distance runner of this generation (and the second-most popular face in the sport behind a certain Jamaican) ended his track career by taking silver in the 5000 meters.  Unlike Bolt, Farah's career will continue.  He'll move on to the marathon, but won't run on the track anymore.

During the race, NBC's Craig Masback mentioned that Farah would be on the Mount Rushmore of men's long distance events.  And it got me thinking.  He's definitely near the top of the list of greatest long distance runners ever, but he's not Bolt.  He doesn't get the top spot.  So who would?  Well, here's my top 10:

This list easily could've included 10 more names, so let's start by handing out honorable mention to places 11-15.  They are (15) Galen Rupp, (14) Said Aouita, (13) Paul Tergat, (12) Alain Mimoun and (11) Frank Shorter.

10. Hannes Kolehmainen, Finland-Long before Kenya and Ethiopia were the dominant forces on the international distance running scene, Finland had the sport's first dynasty.  And that dynasty started with Hannes Kohlemainen.  At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, he won three gold medals and set a world record in the 5000.  Kolehmainen also won the 10,000 (becoming the first man to complete the double) and the individual cross country race, with the Finnish team taking silver.  After World War I, he moved up to the marathon, winning that event at the 1920 Olympics before giving way to Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola.

9. Kip Keino, Kenya-Nowadays he's known more as a sports humanitarian and head of the Kenyan Olympic Committee.  But before that, he was the trailblazer for Kenyan distance runners, who have since become a dominant force.  Keino won two medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and his gold in the 1500 was the first-ever for an African athlete.  He added a gold and a silver four years later in Munich, and he was also a three-time Commonwealth Games gold medalist.

8. Ville Ritola, Finland-The Scottie Pippen to Paavo Nurmi's Michael Jordan (or the Ryan Lochte to Nurmi's Michael Phelps?), Vitola's greatness was never truly appreciated because of Nurmi.  But he was damn good, too.  He won six medals in 1924, including four gold.  And Ritola did this by running a long distance race on eight consecutive days.  He added a gold and a silver at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.  His Olympic medals came in six different events (three of which aren't contested anymore) and also competed in the marathon.

7. Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia-One of the most enduring images from the 1960 Olympics in Rome (the first to be televised) was Abebe Bikila running barefoot in the darkness in front of the Arch of Constantine.  It was one of the most significant races in Olympic history, too, as it marked East Africa's emergence on the long distance running scene.  The first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa ever to win Olympic gold, he made more history four years later when he defended his marathon title in Tokyo.  Bikila is arguably one of the most important figures in Olympic history.

6. Lasse Viren, Finland-Farah wasn't the first man to win both the 5000 and 10,000 at consecutive Olympics.  Lasse Viren was.  He completed the double at the Munich Games in 1972 (when he set a world record in both).  Viren then did it again four years later in Montreal.  He also ran at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, finishing fifth in the 10,000.  They didn't have World Championships until 1983, but if they'd had them in the 70s, you can bet Viren would've won a bunch of World titles, too.

5. Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia-Pick a long distance event.  Kenenisa Bekele probably has the world record.  He took gold in the 10,000 and silver in the 5000 at the Athens Olympics, then pulled off the double in Beijing.  Bekele's also won five World Championships, including four straight in the 10,000 from 2003-09.  Oh yeah, he's also won 11 gold medals at the World Cross Country Championships and has the second-fastest marathon time ever.

4. Mo Farah, Great Britain-He isn't the Greatest of All-Time.  In fact, Sir Mo ends up just off the podium in my rankings.  Which doesn't make his career any less outstanding.  He completed the 5000-10,000 double at the Olympics twice, and he did it at the two World Championships in between, as well.  After finishing second in the 10,000 at the 2011 World Championships, Farah won 10 straight global titles until his silver medal today.  He's the most decorated long distance runner in British history, and that's saying something.

3. Halie Gebrselassie, Ethiopia-Gebrselassie's run of dominance in the 10,000 meters in the 1990s was similar to the one Farah enjoyed.  He didn't lose a 10,000 at a major meet from 1993-2000, winning four World Championships and two Olympic gold medals.  Gebreselassie then won bronze and silver at the next two World Championships, making it six in a row on the podium.  He later moved up to the marathon and won Berlin four straight times.

2. Emil Zatopek, Czechoslovakia-Zatopek won the 5000 and 10,000 at the 1952 Olympics, then decided to enter the marathon and won that, too, in Olympic record time.  Did I mention it was the first marathon of his life?  This was after he won a gold and silver at the 1948 Olympics and went double gold at the 1950 European Championships.  Zatopek was also the first runner ever to break 29 minutes in the 10,000.

1. Paavo Nurmi, Finland-I really don't think there's any doubt Nurmi belongs on top.  He's the first name you think of whenever you think of Olympic distance running.  Nurmi entered 12 Olympic events from 1920-28...and won a medal in each of them, nine gold and three silver.  He also set 22 official world records at distances ranging from 1500 meters to 20 kilometers and never lost a 10,000-meter race.  So revered in Finland, there's a statue of Nurmi outside Helsinki's Olympic Stadium, and he lit the cauldron to start the 1952 Games.

As I said, there are plenty of long distance runners that deserve consideration for "best ever."  I doubt you can even find a consensus for the top spot.  But I think that even a century later, Paavo Nurmi's nine Olympic gold medals, which is tied for the most ever by a track & field athlete, as well as his all-around dominance across a number of events, make him stand out above the rest.

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