21 Feb MO OPTION: THE FARAH CIRCUS IS DAMAGING, BUT IT MUST CONTINUE
By James Fairbourn
There is a neat juxtaposition in the different worlds of athletics this weekend. On one spectrum we have a mud bath at Parliament Hill for the National Cross Country, whilst in Birmingham, British Athletics and the BBC are gearing up for the latest installment of the fascinating Mo Show. One a true test of amateur grit and determination – the other a neatly manicured circus with scripts rehearsed to greater exhaustion than some of the competitors’ bodies.
Will he break the world indoor record over 2 miles? Who really cares other than Farah’s bank manager, British Athletics’ marketing department and the Nike Oregon project?
Farah has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week – not what you are thinking if you have just arrived back from a holiday, much as your heart might leap. His spat with Andy Vernon has shown him to be a chip off the old Nike block when it comes to dealing with detractors. Attack! Attack! Attack! And then, when that hasn’t really worked, go for the jugular. We have seen this from just about every controversial Nike star you can think of: Woods, Armstrong, Salazar, Radcliffe and numerous others – when criticised they seek not to clarify but humiliate, undermine and ultimately destroy their target.
Of course, Mo is the injured party here. The poor little lamb was left ‘hurt’ by Andy Vernon’s alleged jibe at the European Championships in August. Interestingly, he has only remembered how ‘hurt’ he was (and presumably still is) yesterday but I am told that these things fester. To basically accuse Vernon of being racist (undoubtedly the underlying intention of Farah’s revelation) is without foundation and totally beyond the pale. Why are we only hearing about this now? Why not tell anyone at the time? Vernon – and I believe him – concedes that he made such a remark but in jest and that (at the time) Farah saw it that way and laughed along. It seems a totally plausible explanation for events that took place over six months ago. Now it suits Farah not to laugh anymore and so – po-faced – he gravely told an assembled media gathering how upsetting such an accusation was. There’s only one party emerging as ‘an embarrassment’ (to use Farah’s own expression for Vernon) here and that is the double World and Olympic Champion.
Ponder that for a second. The double World and Olympic Champion is being dragged into petit little spats with a European Silver Medalist. An athlete who poses about as much threat to an in-form Farah as Cambridge did to Manchester United. Sure, he could beat Farah – could make life very difficult for him, but the likelihood of that happening is about as close to zero as you are going to get. Why not rise above it Mo? Why not take the moral high ground?
I suspect that the Mo Farah who was sponsored by Adidas and celebrated with Chris Thompson at the 2010 Europeans would have done. But the new Mo needs to be ever conscious of ‘Brand Mo’. Even casual dissent could dilute and damage the image that he and his Nike team have worked so hard to create. The Nike philosophy has always been one of a siege mentality – us against them. The adverts featuring Eric Cantona upon his return from an eight-month ban for kicking a fan are early examples of this. Such contempt for opposition is healthy to an extent – we all enjoy watching the world’s greats get involved in a slanging match (though doing so on Twitter is a little reminiscent of 15 year-old schoolgirls). Just so long as the quality of competition backs all the talk up. That would never be the case here. Just as the way Armstrong and Woods destroyed their critics in the press core was unseemly – Farah’s behaviour towards Vernon crossed the line into bullying and – on Friday – intimidation.
Only an idiot would look at the fields Farah regularly comes up against on UK soil, or watch the farcical closing stages of the 2014 Great North Run and concluded that he wasn’t being helped by the establishment. He conceded as much in his press conference yesterday – though he claimed it was a thing of the past. That is a disgrace in itself. Why should people pay their hard earned cash (usually well in advance of start lists being published) to watch a procession with only one realistic winner? Why doesn’t Farah want to regularly take on the world’s best athletes?
Those questions are rhetorical and largely irrelevant. British Athletics have bet too much on the Farah project to watch it fail. He is 31 and the clock on his period of dominance is clicking – best make out like bandits whilst you still can. A glance at the next rungs of the performance ladder yields no obvious replacement (though I am sure the Foreign Office might be able help out with some hastily arranged British passports) and I wouldn’t mind betting the post-Mo taskforce at Athletics House is a pretty depressing place to be.
For Farah, too, walking away is not an option. The limelight has got into his veins and corrupted him from the inside. What else could he do? As many have found out, Nike – and only Nike – will decide when the music stops and when it does the world of fame and fortune suddenly becomes a dark and lonely place. For his own sake, let’s just hope that ‘One Mo Mile’ isn’t one mile too many.