He’s one of Britain’s greatest-ever athletes — but Mo Farah’s career almost didn’t happen. As he gears up for the Rio Olympics, he talks sacrifices, scandals and shaving his head with Nick Curtis
We know from watching him surge through the finish line to take gold in the London 2012 Olympics in the 10,000 and 5,000 metres — sweat-soaked, eyes and grin huge — that Mo Farah is all whipcord and bone. But in the flesh, he’s so tiny I feel my hands would fit round his waist.
Now 33 and a father of four, the Somali-born, US-based Londoner is not just a Muslim role model and the icon of that glorious ‘Super Saturday’ when he, long jumper Greg Rutherford and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill boosted the nation’s heart into its mouth by winning gold before a crowd of 80,000 at the Olympic Stadium. He’s also the UK’s greatest-ever distance runner.
Having won at both distances at the 2013 and 2015 World Athletics Championships and at the 2010 and 2014 European Championships, he is the first man in history to do the ‘triple-double’. He holds British records at 1,500m, 3,000m, two miles, 5,000m and 10,000m. Right now, he’s gearing up for the London Anniversary Games at Queen Elizabeth Park on 23 July, his last race before the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Perhaps it’s no surprise he’s tired. ‘Mate, you imagine running 120 miles a week, week in week out, for the past four or five years,’ he laughs. ‘It takes a little bit out of you.’ The easy-going demeanour masks an iron will and a vaulting ambition. At Rio, he says, he wants to ‘do something that’s never been done before. To win Olympic gold twice — again… it’s gonna be pretty incredible. I am very fired up. Of course it’s going to be a challenge. I won’t have 75,000 Brits [cheering for me], but on the other hand I don’t have the pressure that I had in London.’
Much of the preparation is psychological. This year, his competitors will include the younger Kenyans Geoffrey Kamworor, 23, and Bedan Karoki, 25, who beat him in the Cardiff half-marathon in March. ‘When you line up on the track, you want to have done your homework, be aware of what they are capable of. You think about everything. It’s like taking a journey, innit? You know, I’ve got four kids, so I plan ahead. I have to book flights far in advance, look at accommodation, where it is, what you can and can’t do. Same in running.’
Then there’s the physical side: ‘I do 17.5 [miles] a day, average, then three times a week I do a gym session. So first thing on a Monday I go for a 12-mile run, then in the evening another five miles. Tuesday, gym, a track session in the morning, then in the afternoon another run. Wednesday gym, run, Thursday a session…’
Surprisingly, his diet is not overly controlled. ‘It’s a lot of protein after a hard session, and before runs and stuff I eat more carbs. It’s chicken, fish, salmon, spaghetti Bolognese, rice. Just easy stuff, mate.’ What can’t you eat that you’d like to? ‘I’ve got such a sweet tooth. I do miss the UK where you get sticky toffee pudding or custard, all that.’ At least he doesn’t have to face the kind of scrutiny that female athletes suffer over their looks. ‘Yeah, it’s unfair. Look at me, what do I need to worry about? No hair, no make-up. Just get out of bed, brush my teeth, go.’ He does, however, shave his head before each race. ‘It’s become a ritual now.’
Since 2011 Farah and his family have lived in Portland, Oregon, where he trains with legendary coach Alberto Salazar. Last year, Salazar was cleared in a US anti-doping investigation: Farah, who was never accused of doping, made public his blood tests, which were clear. ‘Man, it was very frustrating,’ he recalls. ‘But it wasn’t in my control, there was nothing I could have done, and we have moved on. Now, we just need to go after the countries who are crossing the line, not applying the same rules. If you love sport, you have to do the right thing.’
Farah’s training with Salazar involves the use of a cryo-chamber cooled to -140C to aid muscle recovery, and a punishing travel schedule involving different climates and altitudes. ‘I’m away about six months of the year, competing here in the UK or in training camps in Arizona, Ethiopia, the Pyrenees.’ His wife of five years, Tania, stays in Portland with their children. Rhianna, 11, who Mo treats as his own, is from Tania’s previous relationship. Their twin girls, Aisha and Amani, were born just after his 2012 Olympic wins: Farah cut the umbilical cord and dedicated his gold medals to them. His son, Hussein, was born last October and given the middle name Mo after Tania nixed Farah’s suggestions of ‘Arsenal’ or ‘Gooner’. Only Tania and Rhianna will come to Rio: the three youngest ones will stay with relatives.
Is it hard to be away from his kids during training and competitions? ‘It is hard. But you can’t afford to have them there — just distractions, I guess. One of the things that really breaks my heart is that you are in their life for a while, and then you leave. I was in Flagstaff [Arizona] for two months, then I came home for a week. They get confused for the week. They don’t know whether to be close to you again. Then you leave again for three months. Hopefully one day they will understand and be proud of me. But if you want to be the best in the world, that’s what it takes, what you have to do.’
Did Tania know what she was in for when they married? ‘No. She didn’t know. But it works all right.’ He’s clearly somewhat in awe of her: ‘When I come back home, I’m like, whew — I’m impressed. It takes a lot out of you, managing four kids, two of them twins, who are at that age where they fight over everything. I couldn’t do it.’ He even left Tania to fly home alone after their 2010 honeymoon in Zanzibar. ‘We had the honeymoon, we’d put on a bit of weight, I was missing training, and I was like ‘I’ve gotta go’. So she got on the flight back to the UK and I went back to Kenya.’
He helps out when he’s at home: ‘I’m not the best at cooking meals… but I change nappies, and just before I came out I cut my son’s hair.’ Are his kids sporty? With the twins, ‘we take them to gymnastics, swimming, occasionally I’ll take them on the track and they do a few laps. I take them to the gym and they get the Swiss ball and they jump around, just being kids.’
He’d like to bring the family back to London once his running career is over, but Rhianna is already speaking with an American accent and he says he’ll have to take her wishes into account. This matters because his own family background was so fragmented. Farah’s father, Muktar, was born in Hounslow but worked as an IT consultant in Mogadishu where he and his wife, Amran, had six children. The Somalian civil war fragmented the family: aged eight, Mo was billeted with an aunt in Hanworth, south-west London, while two other siblings lived with his parents (who soon split up) in Hounslow, west London. His other siblings, including his twin, Hassan, stayed with their grandmother in Somalia. He didn’t see his twin again for 12 years until he returned to Somalia for Hassan’s wedding. Although he eulogised his brother in his autobiography, Twin Ambitions, he still does not see him often; it is hard to travel to Somalia with his training schedule, and with a baby son and twins of his own.
‘I never really understood how twins work in science though I’m sure they told me in school, the XX and the XY, but I’m sure I wasn’t listening,’ he says. ‘My brother [Hassan] married a twin because he wanted twins: that didn’t happen. I married a non-twin, though she has twins in her family, and when I had twins I was like, OK, thanks. It’s supposed to skip a generation.’ That early splintering of his family had a deep impact on his own attitude towards parenting. ‘My family is everything to me. So I always want them to stay together.’
When he arrived in the UK aged eight, he recalls, ‘everything was bigger and better. London was like light — shiny.’ He didn’t speak English and experienced racism in Feltham where he went to school. ‘Kids would call you names, but that was normal for the times, and you just get on with it. What people forget in my opinion is that I don’t think anyone is born racist. It’s how you are brought up.’
Now, in America, he says he is often detained by airport security because of his name. Isn’t it hard for a Muslim living under the Trump ascendency? For the first time, Farah gets flustered. ‘I grew up with a lot of friends who are white, black, Muslim, non-Muslim. I like people a lot. In America… it’s not divided, but with Trump now, it’s like you are asking for trouble. We wouldn’t dare to say any of the things he is saying in our country and get away with it. It’s just… blasphemy.’
He recently finished filming a documentary, Mo, with the BBC, to be broadcast in August — the crew followed him for six months to capture the punishing, contradictory demands of his busy home life and ruthless training schedule. And he’s ‘co-created’ a book, Ready, Steady, Mo!, aimed at encouraging kids to read and to exercise, due out next week. Last month, with considerable regret, he closed the charitable foundation he set up before he was famous, because he had no time to devote to it.
One of the most extraordinary things about Farah is not the grace and charm with which he has achieved athletic brilliance, but the fact it nearly didn’t happen. When his track ability was spotted by his PE teacher Alan Watkinson — who would later be best man at his wedding — Farah wanted to be a footballer, and had to be bribed with pre-run kickabouts.
In his early 20s, studying athletics at Queen Mary University in east London and starting to make a name for himself on the track, he didn’t really knuckle down until he moved into a flat with a group of utterly committed Australian and Kenyan athletes. Now he’s at an age where he can start to see the end of his career. He may at some point give up track to concentrate on marathons but he only managed bronze in the half-marathon in Cardiff this year, and came eighth in London in 2014. ‘Mate, I struggle at marathons… It’s harsh, just a different pain.’
He’d also like to work with children in sport, or, he jokes, become ‘assistant coach to Arsène Wenger’, the Arsenal manager. First, though, there is a chance of further greatness at Rio. He received a CBE after London 2012. Wins in Rio would surely warrant a knighthood. If he put ‘Sir Mo Farah’ in his passport he’d surely have no further problems with US immigration.
‘What, you just put it on your passport, and people see it and think you’re important?’ Sebastian Coe does, volunteers one of Mo’s minders. He marvels a moment.
‘Sir Mo… Maybe, then.’