World-beating British runner Mo Farah has spent the gold-medal winning portion of his career denying that he took performance-enhancing drugs in more than the allowed amounts or in unallowed ways. He’s had to issue those denials in part because of his association with the legendarily shady coach Alberto Salazar, but also because the British press is famously obsessed with doping.
Last summer, Russian hackers bent on proving that Russian athletes are unfairly targeted for doping obtained an internal report from track and field’s governing body that contained several athletes’ blood testing results and interim assessments for each. The most recent numbers for Farah in the report were listed as “normal,” but that came after a 2015 result that flagged the four-time Olympic gold medalist as “likely doping.”
About a month after the results were leaked—right before track’s world championships in London last August—Daily Telegraph reporter Ben Bloom tweeted that Farah refusing to speak to the press was “cowardly.” In the since-deleted and reportedly litigated tweet, Bloom wrote:
If anyone wonders why there are no words from Mo Farah in a single newspaper this week, it is because he is refusing to speak to the print media. At the biggest time for athletics in Britain since the London 2012 Olympics, the country’s most recognizable athlete—a knight of the realm—has been advised by his PR firm not to speak to us despite repeated pleas from UK Athletics, who are just trying to promote the sport.
Why? Because according to Farah, us print journalists are “making something out of nothing” by asking him difficult questions. How dare we ask about his relationship with a coach who is being investigating for multiple doping violations. How dare we ask about missed drugs tests. And how ware we ask about the IAAF highlighting him as a “likely doper”.
Remember that: No newspaper has ever (or will ever) call Farah a “likely doper” because there is no way it would be allowed for legal reasons. But the sport’s own governing body can call him whatever they want. And (while it was only one document) that is what they called him—a “likely doper”.
So I think I speak for most newspaper journalists when I saw we are not repentant for doing our job and asking questions he doesn’t want to hear from him.
I’m also genuinely sorry that the PR firm are taking this stance because (away from the doping stuff) speaking to Farah is always enjoyable. He is one of the happiest athletes on the circuit and always makes us journalists smile when we talk to him. I hope he thinks he’s getting value for money from these PR experts. From where I’m standing he’s being fleeced and it’s selling the sport short.
Bloom thought he was being careful of the U.K.’s notoriously strict libel statutes, but maybe not careful enough: Jonathan Gault of LetsRun reports this morning that the tweet was an expensive one. According to Gault’s report, Farah sued Bloom and settled for “five figures.” And Farah wasn’t content with a check—Gault also reports as part of the settlement, Bloom had to pin this tweet to his timeline for two weeks:
As soon as the original “likely doping” (and not “likely doper” as Bloom wrote) story broke, Farah’s representatives wrote an intimidating email to running journalists that promised a suit like this one. Emphasis mine:
Below is our response regarding the alleged leak story, to be attributed to “a spokesperson for Mo Farah”.
“It has been widely reported that previous leaks from this organisation have included false or altered documents, and we have asked the IAAF to urgently look into the validity.
Regardless, any suggestion of misconduct is entirely false and seriously misleading. Mo Farah has been subject to many blood tests during his career and has never failed a single one. We have never been informed of any of Mo’s test results being outside of the legal parameters set by the relevant authorities, nor has Mo ever been contacted by the IAAF about any individual result. It is totally incorrect and defamatory to suggest otherwise, and we will pursue any claims to the contrary through all necessary legal routes.”
For your background
Obviously the allegation in this supposedly leaked document is totally contrary to all other evidence on this, eg Mo has never failed a test in his career. Furthermore, the validity of the documents is far from clear, and this should be taken into account before any accusations are made.
Needless to say any allegations of wrongdoing (even if linked to an apparent document leak by a third party) would be entirely irresponsible and we would follow all legal avenues available.
Why would Farah’s case be strong enough to warrant a settlement? The IAAF did have an internal document saying that his blood test results indicated “likely doping,” and nothing in Bloom’s tweet is demonstrably false. The answer is that British speech laws are far more restrictive than American ones—you can be successfully sued there for telling the truth. “Likely doping” was reported on by several American outlets; it’s no coincidence that Farah targeted a British one. It’s probably also no coincidence that Farah sued an individual instead of an outlet. It’s a lot easier to strike fear into lowly writers, for whom the cost of a successful defense might end up higher than the settlement. It’s unclear if the Telegraph is covering Bloom’s costs.
Farah’s response to doping allegations (and his performance, with his greatest success beginning at a relatively late age) resembles no one’s as strongly as it does Lance Armstrong’s. Armstrong successfully sued a British newspaper in 2006 for 300,000 pounds before admitting to doping and paying back the paper in 2013.
Cycling and track have a lot in common due to a shared obsession with an impossible standard of “clean” competition, and stringent European libel laws. Everyone in running—coaches, athletes, authorities, journalists—is constantly forced to contort their actions, and even reality itself. Salazar, now Farah’s former coach, tries to find off-label benefits for legal drugs and risks athletes’ health in doing so. The head of track’s governing body wants to erase all of the world records. And writers can’t write true things. There’s a problem here, and it isn’t athletes using drugs.