When Britain’s Mo Farah crossed the finish line first in the 5,000 metres last August to win his second gold medal at the London Olympics, adulation rained down from the 80,000 spectators and he became a beloved hero at home and abroad.
But now the hero worship appears to be fading. Farah is facing criticism for going too far to cash in on his celebrity status, and he has picked a fight with a London tabloid over reports he’s receiving an unprecedented $1.1-million to run half of the London Marathon on Sunday and the full race next year.
British marathoner Paula Radcliffe has called his decision “strange,” and track commentator Michael Johnston, an American who set world records in the 200 metres and 400 metres, said Farah risks ruining his reputation by making it look as if “it is all about the money.”
Farah has called the reported fee “crazy,” but neither he nor race officials have revealed how much he is being paid. He has also insisted that his plan all along was to use Sunday’s race as preparation for next year’s marathon, which will be his first.
Signs of the growing unease about Farah emerged Thursday at a press conference for the London race. Normally jovial and friendly, Farah turned stern before meeting a small group of newspaper reporters and announced that he would not talk to anyone from the Daily Mail, which wrote about the $1.1-million fee. He then criticized its coverage of him. Two of the papers’ reporters defended their work and walked out.
There’s no question Farah has done well since winning the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the Olympics. He has signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Virgin Media among others and could earn as much as $15-million in endorsements over the next two years. And even though he and his family spend most of the year living in Portland, Ore., where he trains, Farah is adored in Britain for his engaging personality and “Motbot” celebration.
But on Thursday, Farah acknowledged that something had changed and that he had become a victim of the so-called “tall poppy syndrome,” where people who get too far ahead are cut down to size.
“It did come as a bit of a shock because you don’t see anything like that [coming] but it’s just what it is,” he said. “You just kind of let things get taken care of and you’ve got the managers and you’ve got the coach to do what they do. And you just go out and do what you need to do.”
He also said he felt hurt by some of the criticism and suggestions he was only racing for cash.
“That’s annoying because as an athlete, yes, there are rewards, don’t get me wrong, for what I have achieved, becoming Olympic champion,” he said. “But for someone to say he’s only doing that for the rewards, every race I’m doing it for rewards, to do well. Yes, I am here to do well, but this race for me, in my heart, was to come here and learn about the course. … It wasn’t, yes, I’m getting [paid] so and so, so I’m going to do it. If I did that it would be wrong.”
He pointed out that people should understand that he had been training and racing for years before his Olympic glory.
“It has been hard work,” he said. “What really drives me is I hate losing. I want to win.”
Despite the criticism and controversy, Farah said he is excited about Sunday’s race, his first in London since the Olympics.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “This is home for me.”
He made it clear he has no concerns about security, given the bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday.
“This is something I enjoy and it would be wrong to do anything other than to run.”