The 27 year-old British champion arrived in the UK aged eight, with a few words of English and a dream
If you happen to be around St Mary’s College campus in Twickenham on a normal weekday morning, you are likely to bump into him; walking along a running track in his tracksuit, he can be easily mistaken for one of the many students and athletes attending this sports college in South West London. In fact, he used to be one of them just a few years ago before he became the European champion universally lauded as the UK’s best distance runner of this generation.
He is Mo Farah, double gold medallist in Barcelona last summer and the first British athlete to complete the 5,000 and 10,000 metres double at a major championship.
From the first moment we met him and his wife, Tania, on a sunny September morning, it appeared quite clear that behind the serious look of a champion lurks a playful, easy-going, laidback character, “…sometimes too laid back, to the point where he can be very annoying!” reveals Tania, pretty amused.
Mo was eight years old when he first arrived in the UK, leaving his country of origin, Somalia. He came to London with his father, who was born and was lived in Britain. When Farah left Mogadishu, during the early 90s, the Somali capital was about to sink into a civil war which engulfed the country in violence and bloodshed.
“I came to London to spend more time with my dad. Starting a life in a new country is never easy and for me it was quite difficult at the beginning. Also I didn’t speak English,” says Mo. “But I was lucky compared to people who come here as adults, it is much more difficult for them to pick up the language and start a new life. As a youngster I learned the language easily. Sports also helped me to mix with people and to be stronger. And then I met Tania, who has always supported me, no matter what”.
The pair got married last April. They first met at school in Hounslow where they both used to live. “We were at same school and had the same interest in running” tells Tania, a former athlete herself. “He has always been a runner from day one. Within a couple of years of our first meeting, it became quite obvious that he was going to progress to the level where he is now”.
It was Alan Watkinson, Farah’s old PE teacher at Feltham Community School, who first noticed something special in this new schoolboy who had recently arrived from Somalia. He suggested to him that he should join a running club but Mo wanted to play football – only to realise soon after that his his main strength was in running instead.
“I worked hard for this. It didn’t happen straight away” he tells. “As Muhammad Ali used to say, ‘I hate every minute of training but I know it is well worth it’. It’s like this for me too. I’ve got two gold medals now but it took me four years of hard work to achieve them”.
What’s the message you would give to the new Londoners? “Just try to do your best, no matter all the struggles, no matter what your origins or your religion. Nothing is easy in life, you’ve got to be positive, have ambitions, have a dream. Don’t say it is too difficult before you have tried it”.
And he tried hard indeed. Within a few years of his arrival, this new-Londoner boy from Somalia had racked up several junior titles across the country. His ambitions, his strong and positive attitude would lead him even further. “I hate losing” he adds, “that’s also what drives me”. He is not the only one who hates seeing him lose though. He can’t afford to lose any competition, if he does his 5 year-old daughter Rihanna will reproach him, saying “Daddy, you let them beat you!”. “She has got quite high expectations” says Mo laughing, “she could be my coach quite soon!”.
What are your next plans then? “I would have loved to do the Commonwealth Games but unfortunately my body is tired. For me what are more important are the World Championship and the 2012 London Olympics. If I missed them because I carried on too much, I would regret it for the rest of my life”.
One of the most emotional moments during the 10k metres race was you encouraging Chris Thompson… “Well, the team spirit is very important to me. As athletes Chris and I grew up together, we could not be one against another. There was a moment during the race when I felt quite sure I was about to win and then I thought we – the British team – could do even better, get second place as well. So I looked behind waving Chris closer ‘Come on Chris, you can get a medal’. And he did.
What does Somalia mean to you? “Being from Somalia means a lot to me. I still have some family there, but unfortunately I don’t have the time to visit them very often. You never forget where you were born. Nevertheless, I am British now”.
Who is the person you most admire? “Paula Radcliffe. As a youngster I’ve seen her win. She was a kind of idol for me. I happened to be in a team with her, and when I first spoke to her I realised she’s a normal person. Since then she has supported me a lot, financially as well. I’m very grateful for that, these are things you never forget”.
If you had not become a European champion, what do you think you would have done? “I think athletics is what I have talent for. If I wasn’t an athlete I don’t know what I would be. I would probably be just a normal person, I guess?”
With such a character? We doubt it.
Read the article on The New Londoners