For this half-marathon and a commitment to run the whole race next year, the double Olympic champion will trouser somewhere between £450,000 and £700,000 from the organisers. He says it’s not a cynical move to exploit his new-found celebrity and earning power and most definitely not a cheating of those who will turn out in great numbers to see him. That’s the allegation, though. These have been an uncomfortable few weeks for one of last summer’s great feelgood stories.
Michael Johnson, the champion athlete and BBC pundit, has led the backlash. “The British public have come to adore his soft-spoken and humble demeanour, but now he risks ruining his reputation as his participation in only half the race looks like it is all about the money and that leaves him open to criticism,” said Johnson.
He is not the only one to raise the temperature on Farah’s supposed greed. One newspaper recently roped his wife into proceedings – or as it was written, his “very ambitious wife”, the inference being that there was a hunger for money in Team Mo that was a bit distasteful.
The issue has become such a hot topic that he was grilled about it last week and was made to defend the “money-grab”. Never mind that other sportsmen get paid fortunes for just turning up, never mind that certain golfers can bank a million or two just for taking part in a tournament, never mind that footballers make unimaginable fortunes. Sometimes we hold Olympic champions to a different standard. Farah is a hero so long as he knows his place and doesn’t attempt to capitalise on his success, he is the poster boy so long as he remains the lad next door.
Some are begrudging Farah the riches he is making on the back of his extraordinary achievements at the Olympics and it’s unfair. If a sponsor wishes to offer him a chunky six-figure deal to run a marathon and a half then is he supposed to turn it down because the sight of him making money might disturb our view of him? Farah has trained like a demon for many, many years to get to a point where he can call it a career. And now, just because he’s only running half the marathon, there is a questioning of him instead of saying, “You know what, Mo, you worked your backside off to get yourself in this lucrative position. Now go and make the most of it”. As elite sportsmen and sportswomen do in every other discipline.
There was a furore over Farah, but it was the wrong furore. The talk shouldn’t have been so much about the cash as the coach. It has emerged that Farah spent some time with John Smith in Los Angeles last month, Smith being a household name among athletics coaches, his specific area of expertise being with sprinters. He’s had many on his books. With this summer’s world championships in mind, Farah spent a day with Smith working on how to improve his performance later in his races. And it’s troubling.
For many years, Smith has been a highly controversial figure in athletics, principally when he was named in official documents during the BALCO drugs scandal. It was alleged that Smith had met the notorious Victor Conte, who was later jailed for supplying athletes with steroids. Smith has always denied any wrongdoing but for 25 years there has been suspicion about his methods. Ben Johnson’s former coach, Charlie Francis, claimed way back that Smith told him he was using the anabolic steroid, dianabol, on his athletes.
The list of tainted athletes Smith has worked with begs the question about why on earth Farah sought him out – even for only a day, as he said. In the past, Smith coached the sprint hurdler, Larry Wade, who, in 2004, tested positive for the banned steroid, norandrosterone, and was hit with a two-year ban. Mickey Grimes, the 100m and 200m athlete, was another of Smith’s team. Grimes got a two-year ban in 2003. Torri Edwards, the former world champion, was another of his sprinters. Edwards tested positive for the stimulant nikethamide in 2004 and served 15 months of a two-year ban. Inger Miller, Ato Boldon and Danny Everett all tested positive and were all sanctioned to varying degrees. These were Smith’s people. So, too, was Horace Dove-Edwin, the silver medallist in the 1994 Commonwealth Games whose sample from the final came up positive for stanozolol. Dove-Edwin got a two-year ban.
All of this is on public record. A glance at the internet reveals the individual stories and the doubts about Smith. There is no excuse for Farah and his long-term head coach, Alberto Salazar, not knowing the history. No excuse either for his agent, Ricky Simms, who also manages the business affairs of Usain Bolt. Why did they turn to Smith given the suspicions? Why associate themselves with a man who has so much dubious baggage? Is Smith the only coach of this kind that they trust? The only option? Really?
When asked about Smith, Farah replied that it was just a “one-off”. He assured us that he was telling the truth and fair enough. But it was a desperately poor decision on his part, an alliance with a tainted figure that he should have nothing to do with.
Nobody should batter Farah for trying to maximise his earning potential. It’s small-minded and petty to do so. But the trip to Smith’s camp in Los Angeles? That’s far more troubling. In a sport where doping cheats still roam free, Farah is somebody we can all believe in.
Let’s hope he keeps it that way by staying away from coaches with a questionable past.