Mike Rowbottom

Trash talking has been a feature of sport for many years. You could certainly trace a line back in cricket to WG Grace’s terse comment to an opponent as he sought to replace the bails on his stumps after being bowled first ball: "They came to see me bat - not you bowl."

The line moves on, through another sporting great, Muhammad Ali. Before he gained the world boxing title for the first time by defeating the champion Sonny Liston - aka "The Big Bear" - Ali engaged in some pretty basic banter, re-naming his grizzly opponent "The Big Ugly Bear", and, on the same theme, offering up this thought : "After the fight I’m going to go build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear."

This was Ali stinging like a bee, rather than floating like a butterfly.

Athletics has not been immune from this harshness over the years. The trash-talking has been most commonly observed among sprinters. Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson. Dennis Mitchell and anyone.

Dennis Mitchell could run fast - and he never minded a bit of chat to his opponents ©Getty Images
Dennis Mitchell could run fast - and he never minded a bit of chat to his opponents ©Getty Images

But by the time one reaches the other end of the athletics scale - the marathon - the talking largely fades away.

Which made it all the more shocking when two icons of the sport, Britain’s Sir Mo Farah and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, began not so much trash-talking as emptying trash cans over each other’s heads in this week’s lead up to the London Marathon on Sunday (April 28).

Farah, unprompted, used his pre-event press conference to highlight the disappearance from his hotel room in Addis Ababa – where he was preparing for his impending marathon - of mobile phones, £2,500 in various currency and a watch bought for him by his wife.

The problem was - the hotel was one owned by his fellow multiple world and Olympic champion, Gebrselassie. And Farah, clearly angry, publicly accused the Ethiopian of ignoring his requests for help after investigations into the theft appeared to be getting nowhere.

"The robbery happened on my birthday, when I went for an early morning Sunday run," said Farah.

"We left at 5.30am with my coach and training partners and I gave my key to reception so they could clean.

"When I came back about 4.30pm I noticed my bag was open.

"I was like, ‘Shit, I left my bag open’.

"But I then saw it was locked and had been broken into.

"Someone’s got the key from reception, opened it up, took my money, took my nice watch that my wife got me, and two phones.

"The watch was sentimental - it can’t be replaced."

Farah claimed he had texted Gebrselassie repeatedly – but had had no response.

One of these texts was subsequently made public by the Ethiopian as the row between the two men erupted.

Sir Mo Farah got something surprising off his chest in his London Marathon press conference ©Getty Images
Sir Mo Farah got something surprising off his chest in his London Marathon press conference ©Getty Images

"I want to inform you that I’m disappointed you have not made any effort to find my stolen money, and especially my watch,” the text read. “I have tried to contact you by telephone several times. Know that I am not responsible for what I say during the press conference in London and what influence it will have on your personality and your business. Greetings, Sir Mo."

In response Gebrselassie said the message looked like "an act of blackmailing and accusation". He also said there had been "multiple reports of disgraceful conduct, which was not expected from a person of his calibre, and his entourages during his stay, by the hotel staffs".

The Ethiopian also claimed he had earlier intervened after Farah had got into an argument at the hotel. "He was reported to the police for attacking an athlete in the gym," he said. "But due to my mediation role, the criminal charge was able to be dropped."

A spokesperson for Farah said he was "disappointed" with Gebrselassie’s response and said he "disputed all of these claims which are an effort to distract from the situation, where members of his hotel staff used a room key and stole money and items from Mo Farah’s room".

What makes these brutal exchanges all the more inexplicable is that they are bringing into conflict two of the most amiable of runners, whose dazzling smiles on and off the track have been a trademark feature.

I first interviewed Farah when he was a 15-year-old - a chaotic phone conversation engaged upon as he bundled into a bus with a crowd of school-mates.  Since then I have spoken to him on many occasions - after he won his breakthrough senior international title at the 2006 European Cross Country Championships in San Giorgio su Legnano in Italy, after subsequent heady world and Olympic triumphs from 2012 onwards.

He has always appeared the same - open, amiable, albeit emotional on some occasions.

As for Gebrselassie - there are similar images of amiability down the years. Memorably, ahead of a London Marathon appearance, he sat down with a small group of journalists alongside his perennial Kenyan rival, Paul Tergat, and the two men proceeded to give one of the most fascinating, extended and illuminating of interviews.

That said, you don’t achieve what these two men have just by being nice and having a ready smile. Both have shown a willingness to make hard decisions.

Farah has switched his locations and training arrangements on a number of occasions - quitting England to train with the Kenyans, joining Alberto Salazar, leaving Alberto Salazar and joining Gary Lough.

Haile Gebrselassie - Mr Nice Guy, but clearly not a man to cross ©Getty Images
Haile Gebrselassie - Mr Nice Guy, but clearly not a man to cross ©Getty Images

Gebrselassie, before he resigned as President of Ethiopian Athletics last November, came out strongly in favour of making doping offences illegal and actually jailing those athletes involved.

But that harshness was not something that characterised his time in that position.

A couple of months later I asked one of the best up-and-coming Ethiopian runners, Selemon Barega - who won last year’s International Association of Athletics Federations Diamond League 5,000 metres title, aged 18, in an astonishing 12min 43.02sec, a world under-20 record and the fourth fastest ever - what he thought of Gebrselassie stepping down.

"I am not happy for that because I love Haile," the not overly forthcoming  young man insisted. "He is an athlete, he knows everything about athletics."

The more you look at this flaring dispute, the more incredible it appears.     

I’m getting that image of Tony Soprano, shrugging: "What are you gonna do?..."