As the most tetchy and incendiary press conference of Sir Mo Farah’s career drew to a close, he started to shake his head at his accusers. “Nothing’s new,” he told them. “It’s been going on for four years and I’m kind of getting sick of it.”
In a few short minutes of combative sparring, Farah insisted that his four Olympic gold medals were not under a cloud following his former coach Alberto Salazar’s ban for doping offences and accused the British media of racism. Yet on several occasions he also refused to fully condemn the man who mentored him to glory.
On the one hand it was easy to understand Farah’s frustrations. This was not a press conference to promote the Chicago Marathon, where Britain’s most successful athlete will defend his title, but a sustained grilling. Time and again his relationship with Salazar was picked over, much like it has been since 2015, when allegations about his former coach first surfaced.
But nothing new? How could Farah claim that when Salazar was handed a ban for what the US Anti-Doping Agency called “orchestrated doping” barely a week ago? And when the Nike Oregon Project, the training group who turned him from world class to world beater, had been disbanded by Nike only hours earlier?
Repeatedly Farah spoke of “allegations” against Salazar, not the ruling of guilt established in two years of arbitration hearings.
Perhaps a wiser public relations strategy would have been to admit he should have dumped Salazar when Usada first began an investigation in 2015. Instead, when Farah was asked whether he felt let down by Salazar, his prime response was to turn his crosshairs on the media. “I feel let down by you guys to be honest,” he replied. “It is very disappointing to see you guys going at it again and again. The headline is Farah, Farah, Farah. There is no allegation against me. I’ve not done anything wrong. Let’s be clear – these allegations are about Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project.”
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The question was asked again. Again Farah refused to directly answer it. “If I tell you guys, or talk to you guys and be nice to you, you’ll still be negative,” he said. “Either way, I can’t win, you’ve already made up your mind about what you’re going to write.”
There was a sharper twist of the knife when Farah accused the British press of racism. “As much as I am nice to you, there is a clear agenda to this,” he said. “I have seen this many times. I have seen it with Raheem Sterling, with Lewis Hamilton. I cannot win whatever I do.”
When pressed, Farah was eventually critical of Salazar, saying his former coach had made promises to him in 2015 that had turned out to be false. “I pulled out of a race in Birmingham because I wanted some answers,” Farah said. “I flew to Portland, talked to Alberto face to face. He assured me at the time these are just allegations. And that hasn’t been true.”
Notably, Farah said he would be happy for his samples to be retested by anti-doping agencies. “I am probably one of the most tested athletes in the world,” he said. “I am happy to be tested any time and anywhere, and for my samples to be used for whatever they need to do.”
Farah’s media conference came barely 12 hours after the Nike Oregon Project was closed by the Nike chief executive, Mark Parker, because it had become a continuing distraction to its athletes.
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Parker pointed out the panel who imposed the doping ban on Salazar found no “orchestrated doping” or evidence performance-enhancing drugs have been used on Oregon Project athletes. Salazar has said he will appeal.
Nevertheless, it is an ignominious end for a training group once regarded as the best in the world. Its genesis lay in a conversation between Salazar and Nike’s Tom Clarke, currently the company’s president of innovation, while they watched the Boston Marathon in 2001.
After an announcer went wild when an American finished sixth, Clarke turned to Salazar and said: “Have things got so bad we are celebrating that?” Salazar told him he could coach Americans to be competitive again. The Oregon project was born.
Nothing was left to chance. Soon afterwards the NOP’s leading athlete Galen Rupp, who won medals at London 2012 and the Rio Olympics in 2016, was living in an “altitude house” in Portland, with an air-filtering system that simulated high-altitude oxygen tents and naturally boosted his haemoglobin levels.
In the following years wherever technology and science went, Salazar gleefully followed – whether it was by using cryotherapy, underwater treadmills or high-altitude training camps spread across the year.
However, in 2015 the BBC and ProPublica raised serious questions about some of Salazar’s methods, including the use of the banned drug testosterone on his sons in a bizarre experiment. That sparked a formal investigation by Usada, who last month announced that Salazar had been banned for “orchestrating and facilitating prohibited doping conduct”.
In its later years the Oregon Project expanded to include non-Americans, with Farah joining the group in late 2010. “He was flitting around before joining us,” Salazar said. “His training was haphazard. He was all over the place. He did no weight training. He would jog and do five minutes of drills with no stretching afterwards. And technically, Mo tended to overstride towards the end of races.”
When asked whether he was pleased Salazar had been kicked out of the sport, Farah again was slightly evasive. “I have no time for anyone who has crossed the line, and from day one I said that,” he replied. “And if that is proven that he crossed the line, it’s Usada’s decision, that is all we can do.”
Farah also insisted he had been unaware Salazar had been charged by Usada in 2017 until his ban was announced at the end of September. And when asked whether he was saddened at the Oregon Project being shut down, his reply was hardly emphatic.
“I am back in London, I have been out of the Oregon Project two years. It is not my decision to shut down the Oregon Project, it is a Usada decision, a Nike decision. That is Nike not me, I am Mo Farah.”
But you are still wearing Nike kit, one journalist pointed out. “Nike pay me a lot of money,” came the retort. And on this point, at least, there was rare agreement.