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Sir Mo Farah has tried a few sports in his time, including football, cycling and, I seem to recall, a bit of running, but after watching The Real Mo Farah you feel like you’ve been in the boxing ring with him. Revelation after revelation, detail after detail and with one searing emotional confession leading to yet another, the viewer is left punchdrunk, bewildered at the real story of his life. You get quite bruised from this hour of jaw-dropping television.
The old version was heartwarming enough – a family reunion in Britain, fleeing from the Somali civil wars. It was, importantly in these times, a “lawful” form of asylum seeking (though in truth all asylum seekers have the right to have their case heard).
The truth? He was what is now often called, in the dehumanising language used by some, an “illegal”. Farah was trafficked to the UK from Somalia on false papers at around the age of nine and worked as a virtual child slave in domestic servitude with strangers in London. His identity was switched unwittingly with the traffickers’ own child, Mohamed Farah. They told him: “If you want to see your family again, don’t say anything.” The real identity and the family links of this little boy were then extinguished.
When, eventually, his teachers found out the facts about this disruptive, disturbed child, when Mo could hide it no longer, they used subterfuge to get him a British passport in the bogus name he’d been forced to adopt. If they’d tried to establish his legal residency as the kid he really was, Hussein Abdi Kahin, it’s less likely he’d have made his life in Britain and won all those gold medals.
Technically, they broke the law, but who – once they see a helpless, vulnerable child rather than some demonised “illegal migrant” – would do otherwise? His headteacher, Sarah Rennie, and his PE teacher, who couldn’t quite believe what was passing rather quickly across his eyes, are heroes in this story. So too, is Kinsi Farah, the “aunt” who rescued him from his effective incarceration. There are probably people out there who want them prosecuted. That’s the state we’re in.
It’s one of the those documentaries where the producers rightly left the story to be told by those involved, and did so without any intrusive voiceover. So it is mostly the voice of Mo himself we hear, eloquently struggling to come to terms with his past, his past lying, and the lingering feeling it was all somehow his fault that he left his family behind. But we’re also left alternatively shaken and delighted to hear the testimony of his wife, Tania, his mum, Aisha, real twin brother, Hassan (still back in Somaliland, a breakaway territory from the failed state of Somalia), and astonishingly the “real real” Mohamed Farah, the boy who’s identity was used fraudulently to get the young Mo/Hussein through Heathrow Airport. Each of them only knew bits, if anything, of the story of the greatest Olympic athlete Britain has ever produced. Now we know it all. Or nearly...
Strange to say, that for all its shocking stories, The Real Mo Farah left some of the most sensitive questions about this national golden treasure stubbornly unanswered. We know, for example, why his mother sent him away to nearby Djibouti when his father, a cattle farmer, was hit by shrapnel during the civil war, but not why his “uncle” and aunt then exported him to the Farah family in London. As Sir Mo says, “the hardest thing is admitting to myself that someone from my own family may have been involved in trafficking me”.
Plainly, if not intentionally, Sir Mo is also trolling the government as it tries to implement its cruel Rwanda refugee deportation plan. No one needs to state the uncomfortable truth that were this skinny, toothy lad to arrive on a dinghy across the English Channel today, he’d get sent straight back to Africa, even if his asylum claim is genuine. There’s a telling little sequence where we see the Olympic superhero driving back to his childhood home in Hounslow, listening to Priti Patel on the radio banging on about Border Force. He doesn’t say anything. This time, he doesn’t need to.