It is not widely known that when the BBC’s Panorama alleged that Alberto Salazar had broken or bent several anti-doping rules in June 2015, Mo Farah’s initial instinct was to split from the American coach who had guided him to Olympic and world championship glory. That was certainly his position when he boarded a flight from Portland to the United Kingdom, via Amsterdam, two days later. Yet by the time he arrived in Birmingham for a Diamond League meeting he had dramatically changed his mind.
According to one source, Farah decided it would be unfair to ditch his coach and thus throw him to the wolves, when he had seen no evidence of wrongdoing. Another believes that, deep down, the urge to stay with the man who had transformed him from a decent distance runner, finishing sixth and seventh in the 5,000m at the 2007 and 2009 world championships, into the world’s best was simply too strong.
Whatever the reason, it is striking, as Farah returns to Birmingham for his final track race in the UK on Sunday, how little has changed in two years.
Certainly, there have been more spectacular sprint finishes, Mobots and titles. Farah now has a staggering four Olympic and six world gold medals, making him by far Britain’s most successful athlete. Salazar’s role has also altered, from mentor to merely writing Farah’s training programmes. Yet with the American – who vehemently denies any wrongdoing – remaining the subject of a United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation, the cycle of accusation, insinuation and denial refuses to go away.
Compare and contrast Farah’s following comments. The first: “It’s not fair, I haven’t done anything but my name is getting dragged through the mud. You guys are killing me … If you have something on me then, of course, bring it.” The second: “I’ve achieved what I have achieved – you’re trying to destroy it. If you say Mo Farah has done something wrong … prove it.”
The first is from a fractious press conference in Birmingham in June 2015, which affected Farah so much he decided not to race the next day. The second is from a similarly tense press briefing last Sunday. The adjectives might change, but the backing track stays the same.
When Farah steps on to the track in Birmingham late on Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere will be exultant. The 34-year-old, who has a 41-0 record against his opponents in the 3,000m field, will win and win well. Afterwards British Athletics will hold a special celebration, during which the applause and affection will tumble down from the stands.
But these days Farah knows the love for him is no longer universal. Questions about Salazar, the precise relationship of his relationship with the controversial Somali coach Jama Aden and the recent leak of some of his athlete biological data by the Russian hackers Fancy Bears have only exacerbated the fault lines between those who worship him and others who have lost their faith.
Richard Ayers, CEO of the digital media consultancy Seven League, points out that while Farah still receives overwhelmingly supportive comments on his personal social media channels, on running forums the response is significantly more sceptical. But Ayers, whose clients include the All England Club, the Premier League and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is not convinced that Farah can do anything to win his critics round.
“Mo is an absolutely invidious position because there is all this conversation about Salazar, but his coach hasn’t actually been convicted of anything – yet the questions keep coming from the media,” he says. “While you can media-train somebody up to the eyeballs, when there is a sniff of something awry, the natural inclination of most journalists is not to go easy or play nice.”
In the chaotic days after the Panorama story broke, Farah was being advised by British Athletics, his agent, Ricky Simms, and his wife, Tania, who had different takes on how best to respond. That led to the PR agency Freuds being brought in to take charge of his media strategy (one perhaps apocryphal rumour is that the comedian Jimmy Carr recommended them to Farah while they were on holiday in the British Virgin Islands). What was initially a case of crisis-management has become more like an entrenched border skirmish that ignites, subsides, then flares up again.
Last year, at the Rio Olympics, Farah was clearly thrown when asked about his association with Aden. Then came the leak in July by Fancy Bears of data from nearly 50 elite athletes’ biological passports, which suggested that at least one expert thought Farah’s data was “likely doping; passport suspicious” in November 2015 – although six months later another International Association of Athletics Federations email stated that his ABP results “very recently became ‘normal’”. When asked about it at the Anniversary Games last month, Farah said: “You guys are just making something of nothing. I will never fail a drugs test.”
His camp believe his frustration is understandable. They insist he is clean and is tested far more than his rivals from Kenya and Ethiopia. But his ongoing objection to legitimate scrutiny and difficult questions inevitably invites suspicion. When the US steeplechaser Evan Jager was named on the Fancy Bears list he took a more open approach by giving an hour-long interview to the running site Let’s Run. Rather than trying to shake off the issue, he confronted it head on.
That is something Farah might learn from. Why not ask British Athletics to release all his blood data and do a special interview, accompanied by Salazar and the British Athletics performance director, Neil Black, with some of his critics in the journalism and sports science community? It might be better than the drip-drip of questions he faces almost every time he races.
Black, who has known Farah since he was a teenager and Salazar since 2010, insists that he trusts both men completely, having spent time with them and looked them in the eye. He also insists that Salazar is “absolutely brilliant, a genius. He is one of the best people to work with that I have ever come across.”
That may well be true, but it was still very odd to hear Black claim he had found nothing alarming in the leaked interim Usada report into the Nike Oregon Project. Along with detailing numerous times when Salazar appeared to break anti-doping rules, it also criticises the fact that Farah was on levels of Vitamin D that were 83 times the recommended daily allowance, which potentially risked his health as he has hypercalciuria.
The report also contains an email from the project’s assistant coach Pete Julian, which told athletes to stop taking calcitonin because it had been shown to have an increased cancer risk. One of them, Dathan Ritzenhein, was clearly alarmed as he replied: “Is this some kind of joke? I have been taking this for the last four years.”
Among his British team-mates, Farah remains a popular character. Dina Asher-Smith said last week: “Mo has been so important, not only for what he does in championships in terms of winning medals, which he is amazingly consistent at, but also as a team-mate he is so humble, so down-to-earth, very funny and always positive. You see him work so incredibly hard and you just think that if you want to be a world champion that’s what I have to do.”
Those who know him well also speak of Farah’s enormous resilience and how the sniping from his critics rarely bothers him. But whatever he may or may not have done, he occupies a strange hinterland where he is lauded and loved, suspected without ever being tried. A long-distance runner in limbo.