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Natural born winner . . .

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year short list, is thankfully but exasperatingly, jewel-encrusted this year.

Imperious Mo Farah in full flow at the London Olympics
Imperious Mo Farah in full flow at the London Olympics

For to single out anybody as the winner would be like leaving the equivalent of a Kohinoor diamond lying disregarded on the salver. Too many winners in the past have been as predictable as the leadership transition in Pyonyang. So we should relish the tussle over this verdict.

Now I cannot truly boast of contacts in the Revenue, but I can admit that I am receiving constant leaks from among the cognoscenti, those who have studied trends and murmurs about block-voting and who say that Bradley Wiggins might just edge it. Apart from his obvious triumphs, what I liked best of him was the hard-headed candour he brought to the interviews, with a gravitas in keeping with his side-locks which seem to be there to filter out the glib superficiality of many of the utterances we hear in the sporting arena.

So he is up there as front runner. But there is always a last lap. And who manipulates last laps as if stepping stones over a turbulent stream? Mo Farah, of course.

He will get my nod. Firstly, he belongs to an athletic tradition which stems from nothing more than what nature gave us legs for. You don't need gizmos. You can use your pins democratically to vote against sloth anytime. He is in communion with those people I see high-tailing it to catch a train in Central Station.

We could say: he is one of us.

But this is more than a sympathy vote for a man of the people. It is about the tradition to which he successfully adheres, stretching way back to lifestyles of self denial that great middle-distance runners laid down as norms of high attainment. The first such name to enter my consciousness that way, was the great Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi who, with a stop-watch continually in his hand during his races, was once described as a 'mechanical Frankenstein created to annihilate time'. Reading about his lifestyle was like reading about a secular monk. Everything was designed to pitting his body against the clock; ultimately leading to a non-Finnish diet and a brutal asceticism which provoked a compatriot to write: "There was something inhumanly stern and cruel about him". It also produced nine gold medals and three silvers in three Olympics in the twenties. So there it was staring me in the face. This was not just about running. It was about life-appraisal, sacrifice, self-belief. And in Nurmi's particular case, about a special breed of man whose adherence to a bleak philosophy which turned its back on the comfort zone, was even more important than his stopwatch and without which you could not attain greatness. Nurmi created that mould.

In my frivolous existence up to then, I contemplated giving up watching Roy Rogers and Lassie if I ever wanted to get anywhere on the track. No secular monk am I, however, and, as fate would have it, I came across how such extreme measures can push you beyond acceptable boundaries when I interviewed the other Finnish runner Lasse Viren in Prague in 1977 after he had run in the Rude Pravo road race there. He had won the double event, like Mo, in Munich in '76 and Montreal four years later. But the man I met that day was mere skin and bone– like a creature devised for a Tim Burton animation film. Around him had swirled allegations of blood-doping: that is replacing blood to increase the oxygen-carrying red cells in the blood stream to the great benefits of the middle-distance runner.

Whether or not he had indulged in that, he seemed, nevertheless, to personify the dehumanisation of running. Was it worth it to step so far out of the conventions of living that you could be mistaken for a freak? And, astonishingly on reflection, only a few yards away from us that day was the other great champion Emil Zatopek, who with his head-bobbing style had won the two middle-distance track events in Helsinki in 1952, plus the marathon, but who, because he had supported the failed political revolution of the Prague Spring of Dubcek in 1968, had been reduced from holding a sports ministry post to being a humble clerk in an office, on the orders of Moscow, and that day was being forced to act as an obsequious server of tea to the military.

It was a deliberate political humiliation because he had become the most identifiable Czech in the world through his efforts round the track, including the 1952 Olympic 5000 metres final when Chris Chataway in the lead, stumbled as his foot hit the curb on the final bend, and four others, including Zatopek, passed him. I should say that did not prevent Chataway from becoming the first holder of the BBC Sports Personality Award.

Farah's deviation from the norm of living also took its own special knocks in his effort to establish a British identity with all its attendant prejudices. But more importantly, for me, is that his double triumph in London, reminds us that the spectacle of men pounding after each other towards great climaxes, is arguably the keystone of any Olympiad. There are so many wonderful and diverse events now, so meticulously scrutinised by television that you can find yourself forgetting that there has to be a core, something that will remind us of the origins of it all. Farah did that.

But it is no preserve of the Olympics. That same reminder came on the day I watched Lachie Stewart's triumph in the Commonwealth Games 10,000 metres final at Meadowbank in 1970 against the much fancied Australian Ron Clarke. The world's press were more interested in Clarke afterwards than the relatively unknown Stewart and quizzed him about his last competitive race, as to why he took up athletics in the first place. Clarke's response, as I recall, was a ramble through the many sources of influence on him which was like listening to an arm-chair philosopher seeking to explain the mysteries of life. Then somebody remembered that it was actually Lachie who had won and asked him why he had taken up running.

"I just got fed up going to the pictures," he replied.

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