Friday, July 3, 2015

Run, Mo, Run – It’s the Daily Mail!

So Paddy Power have done this. No surprise really. As befits an online bookmaker, they have form. Previous Paddy Power ads have played fast and loose with taste and decency thanks to their rampant sexism and the sort of nationalist sentiment that wouldn’t look out of place at a rally of the far-right.

But this time they’ve outdone themselves by turning the plight of thousands of migrants into a ‘jokey’ advertising campaign. Pure bantz! These people have nowhere to live, ha ha ha! Look at how desperate they are – but don’t forget to place your bets first! They can come over if they’re good at sports, fnar fnar!

In Paddy Power’s defence this last point does at least mean their attitude towards immigration is slightly more liberal than that of the government, whose policies seem to consist solely of ‘bomb their homeland’, ‘let them drown’, ‘build a wall’ and ‘lock them up’. Paddy Power even had a particular athlete in mind when they commissioned their ’hilarious’ ad.

Mo Farah was just eight years old when he arrived in the UK, a refugee from the Somalian civil war. Since his move to London in 1991 he has become one of the most successful and (despite those atrocious Quorn commercials) most loved British athletes of all time. His victories in both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the London 2012 Olympic Games have guaranteed his place in sports history.

Yet it has been a rough few weeks for the long-distance runner. Last month the BBC aired an edition of Panorama that alleged Alberto Salazar, Farah’s coach, had provided performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to some of his athletes. Salazar, a coach at the famed Nike Oregon Project, is said to have encouraged runners, such as Farah’s training partner Galen Rupp, to experiment in micro-doping (taking PEDs in such small amounts so as not to be detected in routine testing) and, in a move seemingly taken from a John le Carre novel, sent athletes pills and sprays in the hollowed out pages of books. For the record, Salazar denies these claims.

Although the Panorama documentary mentioned both Salazar’s relationship with Mo Farah and his role as “unpaid consultant” for UK Athletics (how could they not?), it was careful to avoid insinuating that Farah himself was implicated in any way during their investigation. However, it was inevitable that Mo would be subject to close scrutiny because of his association with the Cuban coach.

Two additional factors do little to dampen the rumours and back page intrigue. First was the revelation Farah had missed two consecutive drug tests prior to the London Olympics. Secondly, looking back over Farah’s career, one notes that his jump from nearly-man to champion occurred at a relatively late stage – and coincided with the switch to Salazar’s tutelage. As Dave Renton pointed out two years ago:
“Without much doubt, the moment that changed Mo from a successful Team GB athlete into a world-beater was his decision in 2011 to relocate to Portland, Oregon in the United States, to work with new coach, Alberto Salazar. Here Farah trained with the American athlete Galen Rupp, and Salazar refocused their training regimes to reduce their sprinting times over the very shortest distances.”
Neither of these factors definitively point to Farah having ever experimented with PEDs, of course. Missing drug tests may not be common, but neither is it completely unheard of. As Kelly Sotheron was quick to point out, ‘clean’ athletes do miss tests from time to time, for all sorts of perfectly innocent reasons, while Chris Froome revealed that he had also missed two such tests during his career. And, while a mid-career upturn in fortunes can be evidence of doping (see Lance Armstrong), it is far from conclusive proof. Any number of factors can trigger a jump to world-class status: a change in coach, a change in training, the retirement of rivals, an unlikely victory, a maturing of physical and/or mental competitiveness. One needs look no further than triple-jumper turned broadcaster Jonathan Edwards for an example of an athlete who blossomed at a relatively late stage in their career.

As more and more questions were asked of Salazar, so Farah increasingly found himself in the spotlight. Even those, such as Jo Pavey, who do not doubt his innocence suggested it would be wise for the double-Olympic champion to distance himself from his coach. As the public and media gaze intensified so Farah was forced to respond, telling the world he was angry his name was “being dragged through the mud” and claiming that the accusations were “killing him”. He offered this riposte via Facebook:
“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs in my life and I never will. Over the course of my career I have taken hundreds of drugs tests and every single one has been negative. I’ve fully explained the only two tests in my career that I have ever missed, which the authorities understood, and there was never any suggestion that these were anything more than simple mistakes.
The last two weeks have been the toughest of my life – with rumours and speculation about me that are completely false – and the impact this has had on my family and friends has left me angry, frustrated and upset. In particular, the media pressure on my young family and my wife, who is 5 months pregnant, is extremely painful, especially as I’m away training for some important races.”
Steve Cram leapt to Farah’s defence. The legendary middle-distance runner who, like Edwards, is now a key member of BBC Sport’s athletics team, claimed Mo was the victim of a witch-hunt saying, “It seems as if some people are deliberately going after him and that is a shame.” Current Team GB athlete Hannah England had made the same point two days previously. Given the status and popularity he enjoys, who would possibly want to conduct a witch-hunt against Farah? The answer, undoubtedly, is the Daily Mail, although Cram was far too savvy to say that out loud, referring only to “sections of the media”.

Since the Panorama story aired, Farah has featured in approximately 130 stories in the Daily Mail. No great shakes there considering he has been tagged in more than 110 articles on the Guardian website over the same time period. But the tone of the pieces featured in the Mail is, shall we say, accusatory. In the wake of the allegations against Salazar, Richard Pendlebury reflected on Farah’s Olympic success and “with an edge of scepticism” asked “How did Mo do it?” Immediately the Mail listed “seven key questions for Mo Farah to answer”, and went to great lengths to stress that Farah and his agent Ricky Simms had failed to answer questions put to them by the paper. The implication being that there “was something nefarious in Farah's two missed tests.” Farah, the Mail continued, had “handled [the] incident surrounding his coach as badly as possible” before adding, “[t]he double Olympic champion is an emotional individual, prone to the occasional tantrum”.

Why the Daily Mail should take such a line is not difficult to fathom. Farah represents everything the paper despises: an ethnically diverse Britain in which migrants can become heroes. As they seek to (re)ignite a three-year-old controversy over so-called ‘plastic Brits’ – the sporting version of the immigrant bogeyman, coming over here, stealing our jobs – the Mail also senses the opportunity to put the boot in on Farah.

Let’s be clear. No one - not me, not the Mail, not UK Athletics – knows if the allegations made against Salazar have any truth to them. Still less can any of us conclude that Farah, an athlete who has never failed a drugs test, is guilty of doping.

But one thing is for sure. The Daily Mail is desperate for Mo Farah, the Muslim, Somalian asylum-seeker with the wrong colour skin, to be guilty as hell. Those of us who see the runner as symbolising the kind of open, welcoming, multi-cultural society in which we want to live, hope he is clean. Not least of all because watching the Mail eat their hate-fuelled insinuation will be more enjoyable than any gold medal.