Well, it wasn’t mean to be this way. I Tweeted this morning in reaction to seeing the great Mo Farah clowning in a new Virgin Media ad in my newspaper beside Usain Bolt in stick-on Richard Branson beards. I felt, instinctively, without thinking very hard about it, that it was a shame that an athlete so beloved and lauded for his amazing achievements on the track at the Olympics should be seen mucking about in an advert for broadband inside of a fortnight after the Games ended.
It’s not easy to convey complex feelings in under 140 characters, but I had a crack at it, and, judging by the deluge of antipathy it generated, I can now confidently conclude that I did a bad job of conveying my feelings. I’m going to try here, where it’s safe and warm, and I can ramble, which I’m better at.
The facts first: the Farah/Bolt print ad is a new campaign, launched across a number of national newspapers at the weekend. Virgin Media has signed up the Somali-born long distance runner in an open-ended deal estimated to be worth £500,000. The campaign has been created by BBH. Jeff Dodds, executive director of brand and marketing communications at Virgin Media, said: “After delivering a stellar performance in the Olympic Games, Mo has found a special place in all of our hearts and is a fully fledged national hero. We’re absolutely delighted to be working with him. Virgin Media is all about delivering brilliant entertainment, and nobody has got the nation cheering at their TVs more than Mo over the last couple of weeks.”
Nobody’s arguing with that. I have almost no interest in watching athletics, as you know, but even I found myself drawn to the living room to watch Farah win the 5000m. You’d have needed a hard heart not to be drawn into the drama. He seems like a nice chap, too. Indeed, it’s the unifying and, yes, iconic power of Farah crossing that finishing line that’s worth preserving. To me, on a visceral level, the sight of him mucking about with a stick-on beard, so soon after his magnificent victory threatens to subtract from it.
Now, in saying this, I do not deny Mo Farah £500,000. As many people were quick to point out, indignantly, he’s got a family, and twins on the way, and he can now support them in a manner that surely befits the love felt for him around GB. But I never meant to criticise him for taking money from a sponsor. All sportspeople do it, seemingly at every level. And, as others pointed out, Farah’s window of opportunity closes very quickly. I’m sure it does. Virgin were very clever to sign him up after signing Bolt. They’ve now got two runners on their books, who, together, are surely worth more than they would be individually.
Unlike, say, Premiership football, which pays out large sums for most of the year to the biggest players at its biggest clubs, athletics is not a big-earning job, even though training is continuous between the big international meets, so the athletes must struggle to keep their dream alive. With this in mind, you’d have to be quite the idealist to suggest that Farah shouldn’t do whatever his sponsors ask him to. He seems like a laugh. He does that Mo-bot thing. I’m sure he’s totally fine with putting on a daft beard.
Dignity is subjective. Some people would do anything. Others would rather die than draw attention to themselves. Athletes compete in public, but this does not make them entertainers. I always feel sorry for them when a microphone is shoved in their face moments after finishing an event or game. It’s hard enough to articulate how you feel about winning or losing at the best of times, but when you are puffed out and rushing with conflicted emotions, it must be awful. But it’s part of the game.
I am an idealist. And it gets me into deep water. I seriously do not think Mo Farah should have told Jeff Dodds at Virgin Media, “Stick the false beard up your arse, contract or no contract!” It’s just a bit of fun, and if you take Virgin’s money, especially that much, then I’m afraid you work for them. I’m assuming Farah’s got a very good agent. I hope so.
To cite a really remote personal example: in the mid-90s, when I was the editor of Q magazine, Stuart Maconie and I had our photograph taken by ITV publicity to promote our film review show The Movie Club. We arrived at the photo studio to find racks of humorous, movie-related costumes. I took umbrage and had what must be one of five tantrums I have ever had in my professional life, refusing to wear any of the stupid wigs or costumes. I explained that I was, by day, the editor of a magazine, a job with a certain amount of responsibility, and that being photographed looking a dick would work against that. We found a compromise, and used some props, and it was all fine. But what I was trying to preserve was my dignity, I guess. Typically, only one shot from the session was ever used anywhere, in black and white. This is it.
Dignity fluctuates according to circumstance. People become more protective of their dignity as they get older. Now, I think you will agree, a magazine editor having to put on a hat for a promotional photo shoot for which he will not be paid extra, and a world-class, Olympic gold-medalist having to put on a beard for a print ad for which he will be paid handsomely are worlds apart. But I was closet to being a nobody in the mid-90s; if anybody “owned” me it was Emap, who paid my salary for editing Q, and my duty was to them. Rightly or wrongly, but with the best intentions, I think the nation feels a certain “ownership” not of Mo Farah, but of the shared experience of those two unforgettable Saturday-night track victories. Jeff Dodds is right: the nation does have a special place in its collective heart for Mo Farah. My love of Mo Farah manifests itself in an idealistic wish that he could earn money, plenty more than he needs, by appearing in adverts that are in some way connected to his achievement.
Hey, I have no love for the corporate hegemony of the likes of Nike or Adidas, but at least sportspeople who appear in their adverts are selling sports equipment. Virgin Media are no more evil than any large company or brand, but the link to the “speed” of their broadband is tenuous, and as such, is not about Farah’s athletic achievement. So he has to wear a beard for a joke about Richard Branson. Just like Usain Bolt did. I just wish he’d been able to wait for – I don’t know – a couple more weeks? Maybe the public’s window of opportunity to savour the moment also closes. I’m discussing this with myself now, in many more than 140 characters.
Don’t be an idealist, kids. It makes you feel sad on a near daily basis, when things don’t go according to your insane plan. If I was in charge, I’d make sure that all sport, amateur and professional, was properly funded and rewarded, so that stars like Farah wouldn’t need to take the corporate shilling. Fortunately, I am not in charge. And the world is run by private companies, who call the shots.
I like the idea of the Olympics being a truly egalitarian contest. May the best man or woman win, and reap the applause. Mo Farah was the fastest at running 5000m. Imagine if, instead of part funding sport through the National Lottery, which remains a tax on those who can least afford it, we funded it by collecting fair taxes from everybody, including corporations and the super rich? This mad system could then be adopted by other nations and the Olympics would belong to all of us, and not to Samsung and McDonald’s and Visa. And athletes could get bonuses, from this publicly-funded pot, for each medal they win, and use that to support their families, and further their careers.
I also made a satirical remark about how we could make the rich Premiership footballers share some of their earnings with the impoverished athletes – I even mentioned my own idealism to underline the joke – and you wouldn’t believe how many people took offence and started to defend Premiership footballers against my despicable plan. It was a joke about socialism, which will never work, right?
Kill me now.