Britain’s double Olympic track champion Mo Farah begins the re-landscaping of his career toward the marathon this weekend when he competes in New Orleans at the Rock `n` Roll Half Marathon. It will be the second competitive half-marathon of Farah’s career. The 2012 Olympic 5000 & 10,000 champion won the 2011 New York City Half Marathon in his debut in 60:23.
While the half in New Orleans will serve as an intermediate step toward Farah’s full marathon debut in London 2014, he will concentrate his 2013 efforts on the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Moscow this summer. But there will be another, more significant step toward the marathon this April when Mo will start this year’s Virgin London Marathon. Yes, he will start, but he will not finish. How do we know? Because that is the deal that Mo’s people worked out with London, start this year, run till half-way then drop off. Then go the full distance in 2014.
From an athletic and PR standpoint this makes perfect sense. From Mo’s vantage point getting the chance to take part in the event without actually being a competitor should serve him well, even if to a small degree, in 2014. And financially it’s a certainly a win fall. According to the U.K’s Daily Mail, Mo Farah will receive an impressive (by running’s standards) £750,000 for his two London starts ($1,160,000US). That fee, which was not confirmed by first-year race director Hugh Brasher (son of event founder Chris Brasher), would dwarf even the £500,000 it is believed Paula Radcliffe received in her prime a decade ago.
The Daily Mail story also underscores the point made by Ben Rosario in a recent submission about the need to make such appearance fees public to hype the sport as being truly professional. BEN ROSARIO: WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?
“He’ll be rightfully well rewarded as an Olympic champion,” was all Hugh Brasher would reveal to the Daily Mail.
But while it all works well for Mo and the event to go just half-way in London 2013, how fair is it to the actual race contenders? And what does it do for the focus of race coverage?
Before the Mo announcement, London 2014 had already been touted as having the best field in its illustrious history. Four former champions had been signed along with six of the ten fastest marathon men in history and reigning Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda. Now all of a sudden Mo is the main attraction, and the best field in history is relegated to very well paid tutors. And why not? Because as fast as the others may be, none of the main contenders would be recognized from Adam walking down a London street like Mo Farah would. And you can bet their appearance fees reflect that difference in star wattage, too – but only in comparison to Mo. They are still being paid way above what other marathons can afford, perhaps in the $200-$300,000 range by some estimates.
But how much sense does it make to recruit the greatest marathon field in event history and then trump it by bringing in an “also ran” as the highest paid and most celebrated athlete in the field? Mo is a huge personality in the U.K. No matter where he situates himself in the lead pack he will create an energy field.
As one manager put it after reading the Daily Mail story, “This is a crazy amount, which will not be appreciated much by the other athletes. But I understand the situation. Mo won two gold medals during the Olympics, has the British nationality, and will give a lot of publicity for the organization. This is how the market is working.”
You can already see the fruits of this signing blooming in next year’s negotiations. The financial discrepancy between Mo and his mates could even have consequences this year, as well. Farah’s presence will understandably draw the spotlight away from the Wilson Kipsangs, Geoffrey Mutais, and Stephen Kiprotichs. It can’t help but do so. At the same time, while it makes sense for the London management to capitalize on Mo’s star power, is it fair to the men making this year’s race their entire spring focus?
While it’s been a far-gone conclusion that Mo would make his debut in London, there is potential downside to signing him to the biggest appearance fee in the field after all the other negotiations had been finalized. The ‘real’ marathoners might feel slighted, or used. Ethiopians can be particularly sensitive to such matters. The marathon is tough enough as it is, and you want the athletes to feel an emotional connection to the event, then make their money running their asses off. Mo’s Million could upset that emotional connection. But it’s funny, too, how motivation can work both ways.
Recall that when Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie made his marathon debut in London 2002 the anticipated match up was against his great Kenyan Olympic track rival Paul Tergat. London also invited — for significantly less money — the reigning marathon world record holder Khalid Khannouchi of the U.S. At the time everyone assumed that Khannouchi was past his freshness date, and had been invited so the current world record holder would be on hand to see his record taken down. Instead, Khannouchi got pumped up by everyone writing him off, and whipped both Geb and Tergat in a new world record (2:05:38, still the standing American record).
Or, how about the case of Meb Keflezighi at the start of the London Olympic Marathon where they announced ten runners to the crowd, including American Ryan Hall, but not Meb. Meb is standing there thinking, ‘I’m the only Olympic Marathon medalist in the field and the U.S. Olympic Trials champion, and I don’t get mentioned?’ He took that slight to heart and then to a strong finishing fourth place.
Maybe the Mo signing is ingeniously Machiavellian. Let’s see who feels the spur in London 2013.
Seeding and motivating race fields
Inviting Mo Farah to run half of this year’s London Marathon is a new twist on an old saw. When John Hancock Financial Services began sponsoring the Boston Marathon in 1986, and inviting its elite fields, they introduced the first multi-year deals into the sport, as well as the first restrictions on where else an athlete might run within the Boston calendar window. The New York Road Runners began seeding its races in 2005, the first year Mary Wittenberg took over as CEO.
“We wanted to make the most of the birds-eye view,” she explained about the practice of placing a top recruit in the lead vehicle. “What better view of what it’s all about? It’s a dress rehearsal without the running.”
Dathan Ritzenhein was the first athlete to take a ride in the NYC lead vehicle, followed by Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, and Shalane Flanagan and Desi Davila. These days two or three prospects ride in the press truck each year. The practice has proven quite successful.
“With Dathan and, Ryan and Kara we thought they would all run two years later,” recalled Wittenberg. “But each wanted to come back the next year! “
It evidently works both ways, though, as Bernard Lagat took the ride two years ago, and came away thinking, hold on a minute, that looks pretty hard. However, that ride was not lost altogether as “Kip” will be making his half-marathon debut in NYC this March 17th.
And so it goes…