When I dig deep I access it all: the sacrifices, the family, how I can’t always play with my kids, says Mo Farah

He’s the London-bred Olympic hero whose twin was left behind when his family fled Somalia — then came Mobot, money and medals. Mo Farah tells Charlotte Edwardes what makes him run

‘My mother told me on the plane over, “In a different country you need to adapt. If you don’t adapt, how can you fit in? How can you succeed?” She was right’: Mo Farah

Published: 14 October 2013

Updated: 12:43, 14 October 2013


Mo Farah isn’t in the hotel room when I walk in. Confused, I look around. When I peek behind the door there he is — hiding. He’s giggling himself silly.

Mo, 30, loves a prank. It’s perhaps not what you’d expect of our hero of the 2012 London Olympics, the first Briton to achieve the astonishing feat of gold in the 10,000m and then, seven balmy evenings later, to storm the 5,000m too. The Somali-born Muslim has become the ultimate immigrant success story, a symbol of inclusive modern Britain. We saw his grit and determination as he burst over the finishing line. Along with his medals, he has a CBE, and Prime Minister David Cameron is backing him for a knighthood.

Until last year, little was known about the man who arrived in London as an eight-year-old to be with his British-born father, without any English or idea of what to expect. “I thought Holland and England were the same place,” he says, and that carol singing was “the weirdest thing I’d ever seen”.

He was also without his twin brother Hassan, “my best friend”. That they’d experienced a painful 12-year separation only emerged mid-Olympics — something Mo found “distracting” and everyone else found “compelling”. Why did he keep it quiet?

“I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me,” he explains. “I didn’t want people to do stuff because they felt bad for me. I wanted to keep some things private. I wanted people to respect me for what I did. And that was on the track.”

Fortunately Farah relented. His autobiography Mo Farah: Twin Ambitions is an exhilarating read, detailing the extraordinary personal sacrifices he’s made striving for excellence.

Today, he’s just off a plane from Portland, Oregon where he now lives with Tania and their daughters, Rhianna, eight, and twins Aisha and Amani, 13 months. (He moved in 2011 to work with coach Alberto Salazar, who — along with his school PE teacher Alan Watkinson — has been a massive influence on his success).

In person, Mo’s a rather dinky 5ft 8in, reed-lean in a slouchy grey tracksuit, gold necklace and beaded bracelet in Union Jack colours. He has the exotic features of a pharaoh: enormous eyes, razor cheekbones and pointed fuzz-grazed chin, with his head shaved conker-smooth and polished. He’s still grinning at his prank, wide and goofy, as he panther pads to the sofa and flops.

Mo Farah with his wife TaniaOlympic glory: Mo Farah with his wife Tania after winning the 10,000m at last year’s London GamesHe says that being “the crazy Somali kid” starting over in Feltham, Middlesex, nearly took him a different route entirely. Dyslexia hampered his schooling and people around him were getting into “drugs, gangs and going to prison.”

“I could’ve gone that way too,” he says. “Easily. 100 per cent. I’m not a bad person, but people can influence me. I can be easily led — when I don’t know what I want.”

“Having grown up in that area, it seemed normal. If you think something’s normal, you end up doing it. But then running meant I was able to travel away from it, to different countries, to see different people and think, ‘there’s more to [life]. That’s why I didn’t go down that route. I saw there was something more.”

Did he ever smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol? “I wouldn’t say I haven’t, I have,” he says. Cigarettes? “Yes. When you’re that age and at school and all your mates are like, ‘yeah, have one’, you do. And I thought, ‘nah, wasn’t for me’. Everyone smoked; everyone was doing stuff. There wasn’t too much alcohol, they were all doing drugs and smoking weed. It was known in that area.

“I didn’t try weed, no,” he says. “But [in Somalia] I tried qat. I think that’s definitely a drug, 100 per cent. I don’t know why people do that. You think — gah! — I’m sure there’s something in it.” (He recalls the night of no sleep in his book and describes it making his mind “wander”).

He worries for Somali kids in London. “The reason they get a bad rep is that there’s not much going on so they’re causing trouble. Then trouble-makers overshadow the ones doing well in school.”

One problem is that “a lot of kids come over [to the UK], and don’t respect it. Unless they adapt and don’t get mixed with the wrong people, they’re not able to hold on.”

Indeed, this is his mother Amran’s mantra. “She told me loads of times, on the plane on the way over, in Djibouti, ‘in a different country you need to adapt. You can’t only go with people of our race, or who speak one language. If you don’t adapt, how can you fit in? How can you succeed?’ She was right.”

Somalia provided an idyllic childhood in some ways. He lived with his mother, grandparents, uncles, aunts and brothers Hassan, Wahib and Ahmed — “we’d all sleep next to each other in one big room in the house.”

“It was beautiful for me as a kid. My life wasn’t terrible. I had friends, I mucked around. I was happy. I was running around, playing, just being myself. It’s good to let your kids out, let them go. As a parent in England you couldn’t do that, but in Somalia everyone knows your name. There were always people looking out for you.”

Mo Farah's familyFarah family: Mo, second right, with his mother Aisha, centre, twin brother Hassan, second left, daughters Rhianna, left, and twins Aisha and AmaniHe got into scrapes (an accident with hot cooking oil caused a bad scar on his arm and a three-month stay in hospital). “I was really naughty. And Hassan was twice as bad. We were always causing trouble.” His uncle Mahamoud “was really strict.” He laughs: “I got smacked on my bum the whole time. He’d shout, ‘take off your pants!’”

He remembers, “the dust, the smell of cooking chicken and rice”, and the incredible dehydrating heat: “even having a wee was hard.” When they moved to Djibouti his walk to school was permeated by the stench of rotting fish. “I hated that smell. It was horrendous. Now I can’t eat fish — except salmon.”

The humidity was intense. “Literally you get out of the shower and start sweating again. The sun heats the pipes so there’s no cold water, unless you have ice. In the afternoon we would sleep. We had fans, but they didn’t do much.”

The civil war impinged, but not directly. “I knew the proximity of the fighting, but it wasn’t like I saw it. There was no TV. We listened to the radio — BBC Somalia. People would sit for hours, radios pressed to their ears, 20 or so listening, shushing each other.”

When his grandmother moved to Holland, his mother packed up too. “It was an economic decision, and we wanted to see my dad. They had plans for us — school, studying, doing something with our lives.” Hassan was supposed to go too but fell ill and, unable to afford five new tickets to London, the family left him in the care of extended family.

Up until then, “We’d been inseparable.” Farah says. “But he was really ill in hospital. I remember saying goodbye to him in the bed. He hugged me. And we did the traditional thing of kissing on both cheeks.  I said, ‘I’ll be seeing you soon. Get well.’ I remember thinking of him as the plane took off, telling myself, ‘He’s going to join us later on. I’m going to see him soon’. I would’ve talked to him through that flight, we would’ve shared it. I kept thinking, ‘he’s going to join us’.”

Although Farah was delighted to be reunited with his father Muktar (who was born in Hounslow and met Mo’s mother while working in Mogadishu), “I missed Hassan. When things didn’t work out, when I needed to talk to someone, when I want him to help me, but also when I was having a good laugh and I’d suddenly go, ‘Oh. I wonder what he’s doing?’

“Odd days I’d think, ‘I don’t feel right. Don’t know what’s wrong’. And then, ‘is it because there’s something wrong with him? Is he all right?”

Mo’s father returned to Somalia for Hassan, but couldn’t find him. Later, after his parents divorced and Mo moved in with his aunt and cousin, his mother went back and found Hassan living near Hargeisa in Somalia.

The twins were reunited in 2003 for Hassan’s wedding. “I remember talking to him when he got married. I said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ He said he was genuinely happy, that ‘Maybe if I wasn’t married we could be together’. And I said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry. Maybe one day’.” 

Farah sends financial support to his brother, and helps educate his nieces and nephews privately. He also runs the Mo Farah Foundation (sending aid to East Africa).

Did he push harder to succeed because he had opportunities in London his brother missed out on? “Yeah,” he says. “Definitely.”

When he “digs deep” in a race, “I access it: everything I’ve been building for years, the sacrifices, the family, how I can’t always play with my kids. How much everyone’s put in: the coaches, the agent. And I get more energy by digging into that, channelling it. I use the crowd too, I think, ‘I can’t let any of these people down’. And I go for it.”

On the flip side he has an incredible ability to “block things out and compartmentalise,” allowing him to run despite anything and everything else going on in his life. “Staying focused is something you must have as an athlete. You have to be head down. Don’t waste energy.” Next April all eyes will be on him again for the London Marathon.

How does Mo relax? Computer games, Tupac and pranks. “Practical jokes are a way of burning off all this energy.” Even the Mobot was a lark; presenter Clare Balding and comedian James Corden dared him to strike the “M” position from the Village People’s YMCA dance routine. His book is littered with other jokes, from making lion noises every time his teacher turned to write on the blackboard to the night he leapt naked from Kingston Bridge. (He was chased by police and cowered, shivering, in a bush). His “continual silliness” gets on his wife Tania’s “nerves”. He once lapped a cinema in South Africa barking like a dog to freak out the all-white audience.  (“It’s still quite segregated there,” he offers by way of explanation).

He puts sugar into his much-needed coffee. “It’s okay it’s only two!” he says when I ask if he’s allowed.

When he talks about his daughters, Farah’s demeanour changes and he’s almost giddy. “I’m so proud of them,” he says. “Aisha is the dominant twin — like my brother.”

“I think about how to bring them up in the right way. I don’t want them to be spoiled because their dad has, you know, done a few things. I don’t want them to take for granted what they have in life. I want them to work hard, be fit and try to be a success like I did.”

And with that my time is up.

Mo Farah’s autobiography Twin Ambitions is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20. He will be signing copies at 12:30pm on Wednesday Oct 16 at Waterstones 1-3 Whittington Avenue, Leadenhall Market, EC3

Source Evening Standard