In Defense of Mo Farah
You might not like his style, but Sir Mo gives his sport some much-needed attitude
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
On Monday, four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah won the London 10,000, an annual road race that finishes in front of Buckingham Palace. With no serious international competition in the field, Farah was the clear favorite, but he still took the opportunity to celebrate the victory with his trademark “Mobot” sign as he broke the tape. You can’t blame him. Farah was coming off a rough couple of weeks.
In case you missed it, at a press conference prior to last month’s London Marathon, Farah injected the proceedings with a heavy dose of awkwardness when he decided, apropos of nothing, to announce that he’d had items stolen from his room when he stayed at a hotel owned by Ethiopian distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie. The incident, which sparked off a public feud between two giants of the sport, made Farah come off as vindictive—willing to degrade the ambiance of the world’s most competitive marathon with his personal vendetta. Then again, the marathon itself didn’t turn out to be all that competitive; Eliud Kipchoge trounced the field to win his ninth consecutive Marathon Major. Farah finished a disappointing fifth.
More recently, Farah has been getting trolled for doing a series of paid posts on his Instagram and Twitter feeds in which he promotes a cleaning product called “Mr. Muscle.” Of course, in 2019 there’s nothing unusual about celebrities moonlighting as social media influencers, but the image of “Sir Mo” scrubbing his bathroom tiles in sweatpants was too good for some people to resist.
“Dude is broke AF,” a poster using the alias “mo debt mo problems” wrote in that famed repository of goodwill, the LetsRun message boards.
I don’t know anything about Farah’s pending insolvency, but, for the first time, I feel compelled to write a few words in his defense.
Not that he needs it. Farah’s achievements on the track speak for themselves: back-to-back Olympic gold in both the 5,000 and 10,000-meters. (It’s a feat only accomplished by one other athlete, Finland’s Lasse Viren, who owned the mid-‘70s.) Farah also has won back-to-back-to-back titles in both events at the biennial IAAF World Championships. Nobody else has done that.
When Farah was at the height of his powers on the track, a period that spans roughly from the 2012 and 2016 Games, there was a sense of inevitability to his races: it didn’t matter how many times he drifted to the back of the pack, or even if he fell down in a race—you knew he was going to destroy everybody on the final lap. As is the case with Eliud Kipchoge and his current marathon streak, Farah exhibited a level of mastery and control that defied what is supposed to be possible in a sport where so much can go wrong every time you step on the line.
But while Kipchoge is regarded with near-unanimous adulation, Farah has been scrutinized for his associations with Alberto Salazar and Jama Aden, coaches who have both been accused of doping-related misconduct. (Farah left Salazar’s Oregon Project in 2017. Although he was never officially coached by Aden, Farah mentions him in his 2013 autobiography Twin Ambitions, writing that he and Aden had known each other for years.) Beyond that, there’s also a profound difference in attitude. Kipchoge approaches his profession with zen-like placidity, while Farah is far more brash. Can you imagine Kipchoge dissing one of his competitors on Twitter with a Taylor Swift reference?
To his credit, Farah is not afraid to also make jokes at his own expense. In the midst of the kerfuffle during the lead-up to the London Marathon, the running media world was treated to a viral clip of Farah cartoonishly falling off a treadmill set to Kipchoge’s world record-setting pace. In the Twittersphere, there were murmurs that such slapstick antics were unbefitting of an elite marathoner a few days prior to a major race. For some, it further cemented the difference between Kipchoge the stoic and Farah the publicity-seeking showboat.
It’s certainly true that Farah doesn’t mind a little bit of attention. The “Mobot” was created in 2012 on “A League of Their Own,” a sports-themed game show on which Farah has been a guest four times. A prodigious social media user, Farah has his own YouTube channel and nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram—by far the most of any pro distance runner. His Instagram profile pic captures the moment when he was knighted in 2017.
Does this all amount to a kind of arrogance? Of course it does. But wouldn’t you be arrogant, too, if you were a child refugee from Somalia who grew up to become one of the most accomplished athletes in the world? And whatever you might want to say about Farah, you can’t accuse him of not doing his part for the publicity-starved sport of distance running. Arguably the most impressive aspect of his 10K win on Monday was that he was racing again, not even a full month removed the London Marathon. These days, Kipchoge only competes twice a year.
Speaking of the Boss Man, on Wednesday it was announced that Kipchoge will be writing a blog in the lead-up to his next attempt to run a marathon in under two hours. It’s theoretically possible that this was his own idea. Who knows? Maybe Kipchoge has a burning desire to share his private thoughts with a bunch of nerdy strangers on the Internet. But if I had to bet, I would guess one of his sponsors has asked the world’s greatest marathoner to put himself out there a little more.
Here, for once, Farah can show Kipchoge how it’s done.