Mo Farah: Ex-UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner says he advised athlete to leave Alberto Salazar in 2015

By Laura ScottBBC Sport
Mo Farah and Alberto Salazar pictured in 2015
Mo Farah and Alberto Salazar pictured in 2015 at the Beijing World Championships

Former UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner says he tried to convince Mo Farah to leave his now disgraced ex-coach Alberto Salazar in 2015.

Salazar was banned from the sport for four years in October 2019 after being found guilty of doping violations following an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency and a two-year court battle.

The American ran the Nike Oregon Project, which was home to four-time Olympic champion Farah between 2011 and 2017 but has been shut down in the wake of Salazar's ban.

Warner says he visited Farah the day after the 2015 World Championships in Beijing - where the Briton won 5,000m and 10,000m gold to become the first man to pull off a distance 'triple-double' - to ask if he "wanted to take the risk" of staying with Salazar.

In an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, Warner, who left UK Athletics (UKA) two and a half years ago after 11 years at the helm, said: "I would have loved Mo to walk away.

"He was adamant he wasn't going to change his coach."

Farah, 36, has never failed a drugs test and is not accused of any wrongdoing.

The investigation into Salazar began after a BBC Panorama programme in 2015.

Farah said in Chicago last year that Salazar promised him the allegations in the programme were "not true". In January, he said he would have been "the first one out" had he known his former coach faced a ban for doping violations.

Fresh allegations about the 61-year-old will be made in a new Panorama on Monday, which could lead to further scrutiny of UKA and Farah.

Speaking in his first general athletics interview since leaving UKA, Warner reflected on the "very difficult circumstances" that he and the rest of the body's board faced when the first Panorama on Salazar aired.

In light of the claims against the American coach, an internal UKA review into the Nike Oregon Project was led by former athlete and board member Dr Sarah Rowell.

That concluded there was "no concern" about letting Farah continue to be coached by Salazar.

Warner has now accepted that "possibly" the panel could have had an independent chair but he felt the right decision was made in the circumstances.

"All of our decisions had to be built around protecting our athlete - yes, a great medal prospect but ultimately a human being - and that presumption of innocence for Salazar as well. So it was a moral tight rope that we walked.

"We came out with maybe the least worst outcome. But the best outcome actually would have been Mo saying: 'Do you know what? I won't take the risk.'

"I personally tried to persuade him to change coach. I met him the day after the Beijing World Championships ended.

"I talked him through the board's thinking at the time around the whole Oregon Project and his position within it, and I had one last go at saying to him: 'Are you sure you want to take that risk?'

"He was adamant he wanted to stay with Salazar, so everything else fell into place behind that."

Asked whether UKA had the power at the time to sever ties with Salazar and stop Farah working with him, Warner said: "Yes, absolutely you could have the power to do that.

"If Mo Farah is absolutely adamant he is not going to change coach then he would be outside of the UK Sport, UK Athletics system with no chance for us to provide protections for him medically.

"So you end up making a decision as to whether you want your leading athlete to be cast to the winds on the other side of the Atlantic or whether you want to maintain a strong degree of oversight - and that is the side of the line we came down on.

"I think there is a duty of care there to the athlete to ensure that all protections are put in place as far as is possible."

Farah's representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

In November, UKA commissioned an independent review into its handling of the Salazar situation, to be led by sports law barrister John Mehrzad.

"There are always lessons to be learned," said Warner. "I have spoken to John Mehrzad as part of that review and, as I understand it, that review will be published next month.

"It seems very much, from my conversations with him, to be about lessons learned not about pointing fingers of blame."

UK Athletics 'in crisis'

Before his departure from UKA at the end of the 2017 World Championships in London, Warner said he was leaving athletics in "great shape".

But he now says the organisation is in "crisis" because of "political in-fighting".

"I am quite saddened and a little bit angry that they have squandered what was a huge opportunity presented by the World Championships in 2017," he added.

"We sold a million tickets across the IAAF World Championships and the IPC World Para Athletics Championships and there was a re-energisation of the sport that was a platform to grow it both at grassroots and to take the elite team to greater heights.

"And all we have really seen since then is a lot of political in-fighting, some neglect of commercial arrangements and the money has run down, we've been through two chairs, one interim chair, only just got round to hiring a permanent chief executive.

"And frankly the sport, to my mind on that basis, is going backwards, maybe sideways at best. It is a great shame because the opportunity was presented."

He added: "'I don't think it is broken, but it is absolutely a crisis."

Warner said that there needs to be "strong leadership" in UKA for people to rally round.

Earlier in February, UKA made changes to its leadership by recruiting Joanna Adams as chief executive, while Nic Coward - who was interim CEO - became temporary chairman after Chris Clark stood down.

The latest changes come after performance director Neil Black left his position in October. UKA also saw Richard Bowker leave his role as chair, while Zara Hyde-Peters opted not to take up the role of chief executive following allegations about her husband.

Warner was particularly critical of his immediate successor Bowker's conflict with the home countries' federations.

Bowker resigned in January 2019 after facing a vote of no confidence from the UKA members' council.

"My successor chose to pick a fight with the home countries - England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales," said Warner.

"It was wholly unnecessary because the structures that were in place - still are in place - they may not be perfect but with good will on all sides - people who are passionate for the sport and want it to succeed, - they can work together, they can rub along and they can push a sport forwards.

"Unfortunately, the chair decided he wanted to unravel all those arrangements and create something different, and it has led to two and a half years of internal agonies."

UKA declined to comment on Warner's specific remarks.

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