LONDON (Reuters) - Right at the last, Mo Farah’s unbeatable air could not stand up to another examination by the world’s best distance runners as he was denied one final global triumph in his farewell championship track race on Saturday.
As the Briton was consoled -- and congratulated on a peerless track career -- by his competitors following his world 5,000 meters silver in the stadium where his legend was first properly sculpted in 2012, the only question that remained was where he stands in the annals of track distance running.
There is a powerful argument to say, after 10 straight global championship victories stretching back to the 2011 world 5,000 meters triumph in Daegu, that the 34-year-old is the greatest distance racer we have ever seen on the track.
Despite his defeat on Saturday, his ability, time and again, to fend off every challenge and tactic thrown at him -- from Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes ganging up on him to being spiked and bruised in physical races -- and still sprint to victory was unprecedented during an incredible six-year reign.
His ability to strike for home with that long, loping stride, anywhere from 600 meters to 100 meters out -- and then to find yet another gear when it seemed as if he was flat out -- marked him as a unique talent.
Yet being considered the best racer is very different from being seen as the greatest distance athlete of all-time.
Seb Coe, the president of the IAAF and a massive fan of Farah, set the ball rolling when declaring in Friday’s Evening Standard newspaper that Haile Gebrselassie was the greatest.
“When it comes to the debate on the greatest distance runner of all time, I‘m tough on this,” said Coe, who himself is in the shake-up for the title best middle-distance runner of them all.
”For me, it’s not Mo Farah — and that’s not to do a disservice to Mo, who is one of the greats of all time.
“For me that still has to be Haile Gebrselassie, for the distances that he covered, the titles he won and the world records he broke.”
In championship running, Farah won 10 on the trot before Saturday’s setback, compared with Gebrselassie’s six in a row at 10,000 meters and Kenenisa Bekele’s best run of four championship wins in succession at both distances.
Yet the two Ethiopian greats also went chasing records to extraordinary effect, Bekele setting a total of three new world marks at 5,000m and 10,000m and Gebrselassie seven at the two events.
Farah has never been down that route, with his capacity for really fast times never examined.
It remains an extraordinary fact that the most successful championship runner ever at 5,000m with five global titles, is ranked only the 31st-fastest runner of all time, at 12 minutes 53.11 seconds. Bekele holds the world record at 12:37.35.
At 10,000 meters, in which Farah has also won a record five global golds, he is also still only the 16th-fastest (26:46.57), nearly half a minute down on Bekele’s world record of 26:17.53.
Bekele, a year older than Farah at 35, won nine global golds, once went unbeaten for eight years at 10,000 meters, won 11 world cross-country titles and now holds the second-fastest marathon time in history (2 hours 3 minutes 3 seconds).
For the moment, even if Gebrselassie was the great Ethiopian trailblazer, it seems fair to rank Bekele the highest for his all-round achievements on the track, country and roads.
Yet Farah, who has run only one marathon, finishing eighth in London in 2014 in a relatively modest 2:08:21, believes he can make a big impact on the roads.
The most amazing tale in the annals of British athletics may not quite have run its course yet.
Reporting by Ian Chadband,; Editing by Neville Dalton