It should be said at the outset that some very brilliant people have subjected the sanctity of Mo Farah’s achievements to the most unflinching journalistic scrutiny ahead of the crisis which now engulfs him. And they emerged from that process with the sum total of nothing.
David Epstein, a co-contributor to the BBC Panorama documentary “Catch Me If You Can”, which has plunged Farah into the depths of the Alberto Salazar controversy these past few days, whose work as author of The Sports Gene underlines his status as one of the best, makes no bones about this. “Obviously, I was collaborating with the BBC and he’s a huge figure over there [in Britain] but nothing reportable came up on him. It’s as simple as that. If it had, and I could have nailed it down, I would have reported it.”
And that is what makes Farah’s swirl of denial, obfuscation and inaction more desperate, as it drags British athletics down, deeper and deeper into a swirling morass of suspicion, doubt and contradiction. The singular, very serious charge against Farah is that, amid his own preening self-absorption, he cannot see that the mere association between such a totem of the sport as he and a full-blown doping controversy is deeply destructive. “It’s all Mo, Mo, Mo,” Farah complained on Saturday night, launching into that use of the third person which is the first sign of egotistical madness in a sportsman. He was incapable of looking beyond his own egocentricity to seeing that the concern here must be for British athletics; not for him.
It’s hard to avoid the sense that some of those left behind to pick up the pieces have become too close to this man – too star-struck to lay it on the line and tell him that you step away from your coach when seven witnesses have gone to the United States Anti-Doping Agency to complain about his coaching practices. It does not help that Salazar is an unofficial adviser to UK Athletics (UKA) too, though the decision not to ask him to stand down for now does not exactly seem unanimous within the organisation.
It really was Mo, Mo, Mo – disappointing 9,000 Birmingham spectators, most of whom had forked out for a day’s athletics based on his presence, by boarding a 6am flight on Sunday back to Oregon. And it was Mo, Mo, Mo leaving UKA to dig the hole a little deeper yesterday, as it struggled for something reassuring to say.
“We’ll look again in depth at all Farah’s medical data,” said the organisation’s chairman, Ed Warner, leaving most of us to ask why every possible examination of that data had not actually been undertaken in the first place. “We’re checking the way we check the data,” I was told. “We’re auditing the audit.” Such was the kind of doublespeak Farah was happy to leave to others when he boarded that dawn flight.
The inconvenient truth for UKA is that Farah is actually far more semi-detached – and potentially unknown to the organisation – than its other athletes because of the agreement it struck allowing him to be based at the Nike Oregon Project (NOP) in Portland.
So while those in charge of British athletics do have a system in place where all the information and knowledge on their athletes is known, Farah’s permanent base in Oregon means that day-to-day control has most probably been ceded to a team at NOP, says Ross Tucker, the respected Cape Town-based sports scientist, a specialist in endurance running and professor of exercise physiology at Free State University, and currently working with World Rugby among others.
“It may be that [UKA] are still getting all the information via some co-operative agreement,” he says. “The fact that Salazar is part of UK Athletics would suggest this is a real possibility: he provides information, the channels of communication are open. However, geography is king when it comes to elite athletes, and so I’d be surprised if they are fully in the loop.
“One of the great challenges of high-performance management is monitoring the athletes when they are not physically with you. It is very unlikely, in my estimation, that UK Athletics would know all of what Farah is doing
“What happens in Oregon, even in the best-controlled system in the world – one where UK Athletics provides Farah with access to a doctor, a nutrition expert, a physiologist – will ultimately be in the dark because of the separation. That means that Farah equally has access to any doctor, dietician, physiologist, in Oregon, and that creates the opportunity for him to do things they cannot possibly know about.” There is no suggestion of any impropriety by NOP.
However, this means that UKA may now have to go to Oregon seeking a detailed description of Farah’s supplements and blood tests and, perhaps most significantly, the doping declaration forms which require athletes to fill in details of medications or supplements. “These forms obviously force the athlete to be honest,” says Tucker. “They have a strong incentive for honesty – if you don’t disclose something, and they test you, it can come back to bite you. But the simple reality is that you can track everything, but when the athlete is half a world away, with access to everyone you provide (and more), you can’t guarantee that you know anything.”
The contradictions in Farah’s own account were left floating in the wind yesterday. For instance, how to equate his claim that he had only known for 48 hours about the allegations directed at Salazar when the extremely stiff rules governing the BBC’s “right-to-reply policy” entailed letters – dozens of them – being sent to Farah and Salazar weeks ago. According to Epstein’s account, replies to these letters started coming back a couple of weeks later.
For athletics, as for football last week, this story appears to be awaiting its American moment when the US Anti-Doping Authority makes a move or a declaration. It may be three days before Warner offers any kind of briefing to the British press. He may be waiting for Salazar to make his own response. In the meantime, the miasma of doubt and the suspicion grow, to the detriment of the sport, which imagined nothing like this was possible when Farah took it to its apotheosis on that golden Saturday at the Olympic Stadium three summers ago.
The mobile telephone of Farah’s agent, Ricky Simms, just clicked straight to voicemail, again and again and again.Reuse content