‘I went a bit crazy’: Mo Farah on rebellion, love, ruthlessness – and being forced to live a lie

<span>‘To be the best, you’ve got to put yourself before anyone else.’</span><span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
‘To be the best, you’ve got to put yourself before anyone else.’Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Twelve years on, it still gives you goose bumps – probably the greatest achievement in British Olympic history, accompanied by the greatest commentary. “Mo Farah gritting his teeth now, the arms have got to pump, the knees have got to come up high,” shouts Steve Cram from the commentary box, trying to make himself heard above the stadium din. He stands up, punching the air, willing Farah home. “He’s got to find something extra. He’s got to kick on. Come on Mo Farah. He’s going to get there. Mo Farah’s going to make it two golds on the run for Great Britain. Beautiful. The place erupts. He’s a double Olympic champion.”

This was, of course, London 2012. A week earlier, on 4 August, Farah had become the first Briton to win the 10,000m. Now, the refugee from Somaliland had become the first Briton to do the long-distance double – 5,000m and 10,000m. What’s more, he had done it at the same Olympics. Astonishingly, he did the same again four years later in Rio, a record equalled only by Finland’s Lasse Virén. Both Cram and Brendan Foster, who was commentating alongside him in 2012, have called Farah Britain’s greatest athlete, although for some he is a controversial figure. It’s a remarkable story. And we didn’t know the half of it back then.

In 2022, he revealed in a BBC documentary that he had been trafficked to the UK at nine and forced to work as a domestic servant. It was shocking on so many levels. He had been flown over by a woman he had not previously met, stripped of his birth name, Hussein Abdi Kahin, given the name of her eldest son, Mohamed Farah, and made to look after her two younger children. He rarely went to primary school.

Farah retired in September at 40. As well as his Olympic feats, he had won six world championship gold medals, five European championship golds and broken the British record for the marathon (an event he only took up in his mid-30s). Today, we meet at the Guardian’s office in central London. He looks unchanged from when I interviewed him after the glory of 2012 – lithe, lightweight, supremely fit with a luminous smile. But he seems so different in character – at ease with himself, more measured, with a new seriousness. Back then, the famous smile did much of the talking for him. He admits he used it as a mask in the old days.

The Farah of 2012 didn’t appear to have a care in the world. He told me that he, his mother and two of his siblings had come to Britain to live with his father, an IT consultant, in London. After years away from his father, he said: “Seeing Dad was more exciting than anything else.” It wasn’t true. His father, Abdi, had been killed by a stray bullet in the civil war at home when Farah was four. He had been forced to live a lie – his name, his father, his childhood. Despite being knighted in 2017, despite the Home Office having long known the truth about his trafficking, Farah was terrified he would be deported. It was only after the Home Office announced it would take no action against Farah, just before the documentary was broadcast, that he relaxed.

He says his memories of Somaliland are largely confined to playing football: “We didn’t even have a football. We had socks, lots of socks, and a plastic bag wrapped around them.” As he was growing up in Britain, he saw Somaliland from his child’s-eye perspective. “I imagined this huge place in the street with the lights. When I went back in 2003, I realised the reality was it was this little village.”

After his father’s death, he was sent by his mother to stay with family in neighbouring Djibouti. From there, he travelled to Britain on fake documents that showed his photo next to the name Mohamed Farah. He also had a piece of paper containing the address of the relatives he believed he was going to live with. He says the woman who met him (and renamed him) took him to her home in Hounslow, a couple of miles from Heathrow airport in west London, and ripped up the piece of paper in front of Farah. Without the address, he was stuffed. He claims he was forced to do housework and childcare in exchange for food. The woman has disputed his version of events and insists she is not a trafficker.

“No child should have ever gone through what I did,” he says today. “I don’t think any human should be treated like that. I was not allowed to do anything I wanted to do, or hang out with other kids. Yeah. To have gone through what I did was not easy, and is still not easy.”

He was 11 when he was finally allowed to go to school full-time, at Feltham Community College. Farah adored football. He gave everything to it. But it was running at which he excelled. “I didn’t have an interest in running, though. I was like: I’m good at running and it’s fine, but I wanted to play football. My PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, could see how far ahead I was of the other kids just in warm-up. I’d finish my second lap and they’d still be on their first.”

Watkinson became a mentor and asked him to join the running club. But there was no way the mother of the house would let him do an after-school activity when he could be looking after her children. The troubled Farah trusted Watkinson. Towards the end of year 7, he decided to tell Watkinson that he was living in servitude. Once he revealed the truth, he reckoned it wouldn’t be safe to return home. “I was scared and I packed my bags. I knew when I told him there was no going back,” he says.

Farah spent a terrifying couple of days back with the family while Watkinson informed social services and the school. He was then removed from the home and went to live with a woman he called aunt. “She’s not really my aunt. She’s a distant relative. She was very good to me, she put a roof above me when I had no family and she looked after me.”

When you’ve been kept in a room, not being able to do anything, at some point you’re going to lose the plot. And I did

Farah was finally allowed to live a child’s life. He joined the running club and prospered. But his dream was still to play professional football. “I thought: one day, I’ll play for a club.” Was he good enough? “No. No, that’s the reality.”

When did he first become aware of the Olympics? “The first proper Olympics I engaged with was Sydney in 2000, watching Cathy Freeman in the 400m and Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat in the 10,000m. That’s the moment I went: I want to be Olympic champion. I was in sixth form.”

What sealed the deal for him was a trip to Disney World in Florida as part of an Olympic youth squad. “I remember being on the plane for hours and something clicked in my head. If these are the rewards, you go to Disney World Florida, you go to training then you go on all these rides, then athletics is good. I thought: I want to become an athlete, I want to fully focus on running, not football. At that moment, I started to train more, to improve, I won the English schools [cross-country championships], I went to the European cross‑country under-20s and came second. I did the world cross-country when I was 17.”

At 18, he won his first major title – the 5,000m at the 2001 European Athletics junior championships in Italy. It was a huge achievement, but Farah knew he still wasn’t giving his all. He was doing a GNVQ in leisure and tourism at Richmond College with the hope of studying sports science. But it never happened. Farah wasn’t yet ready to sacrifice fun for study or the ascetic lifestyle of an athlete.

When we met in 2012, he told me about the time he jumped naked off Kingston Bridge in south-west London. I asked him why he had done it. “Because I was mad when I was younger. I just had too much energy,” he said. When I asked whether he was drunk when he had jumped, he looked horrified. No, of course not, he said – he had always been a good Muslim.

Today, he gives a fuller explanation of his antics. “Listen, when you haven’t had the life and you’ve been kept in that room, not being able to do anything, at some point you’re going to let go and lose the plot. And I did. When I went to college I was like: I’m free, I can have my own room, my own friends, I can go and do stuff, and I did go a bit crazy.”

By 22, Farah had come second in the European under-23 championships and competed for Great Britain. But it was only now, in 2005, that he began to realise what it would take to be a true champion. He moved into a house in London with a group of Kenyan runners, including the then 10,000m world No 1, Micah Kogo. Watching their training regime, Farah began to feel like a slouch. “They were sleeping, eating and training, sleeping, eating and training. And I said to myself: if I’m ever going to have any chance of beating these guys, I’m going to have to change something.”

He trained in the day and thought that was sufficient. In the evening, he went out with his friends, eating curry and playing video games. “I thought: as long as I run, that’s it. I didn’t know any better,” he told me in 2012. Did the Kenyans say anything to him? “No, but they’d try to wake me at 6am and I’d say: ‘OK, OK,’ then just go back to sleep.”

You can’t forget what someone contributed to your career. Salazar gave me self-belief, to make me think I belonged here

A turning point came when he missed the 2004 Athens Olympics with a torn calf. It prompted an existential crisis. He wondered whether it was a sign to give up and get a regular full-time job. “I was thinking: if my running doesn’t work, what am I going to do? Then when I got better I said to myself: I just want to be a full-time athlete, train, give it all and be smart.” He went to live with the Kenyans in Kenya and adopted their mantra – eat, sleep, train.

In 2008, Farah competed at his first Olympics, in Beijing, finishing 17th in the 5,000m. He still had so much ground to make up to have a chance of a medal at London 2012. By now, he knew that meant working every bit as hard as the Kenyans, if not harder. In 2010, he married his long-term girlfriend, Tania Nell. While they were on honeymoon in Zanzibar, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland and the ash cloud brought much international air travel to a stop. Farah told Tania he couldn’t wait for the cloud to clear to travel back to Britain with her. He headed to Kenya, leaving Tania to make her own way home. “I had to do it,” he says.

Did she understand? “She started to understand more and more. But, at that point, she didn’t understand as much.” What did she say? He grins. “She looked at me.” He mimics her disbelieving stare. “She was like: OK, we’ve just got married, can’t you come back with me and then disappear? But I couldn’t.” Any day you are not training is a potential medal lost, he says. He spent six weeks in Kenya, then returned to Europe to win double gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the 2010 European championships in Barcelona. It was by far his greatest achievement yet.

A few months after his triumphs in Barcelona, he uprooted the family (Rihanna, Tania’s daughter from a previous relationship, was five at the time) to move to Portland, Oregon, to train with the American coach Alberto Salazar, then famous for his radical coaching techniques and now infamous for having received a four-year ban in 2019 for doping offences. He knew that the tiniest percentages distinguished an Olympic champion from an also-ran. Salazar introduced him to radical training methods such as underwater treadmills and cryogenic chambers.

Do you have to be selfish to be the best? “You do. You’ve got to be ruthless.” In what way? “Put yourself before anyone else. At times, I’ve stayed away two and a half months, and when your kids are sick and go through hard times in school and you’re not there, it’s difficult. But if you didn’t do the work and be away and put in the miles doing high-altitude training, the result would have been totally different.”

Ultimately, though, he says his success has enabled the family (as well as Rihanna, he and Tania have twin daughters, Aisha and Amani, 11, and a son, Hussein, eight) to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. “You’ve got to weigh it. I ask: would I have changed anything? I would love to have been around for my kids more, but I’ve got all that time ahead of me.”

In 2011, he won the 5,000m at the world championships. And then came 2012. What was better: winning the 5,000m or the 10,000m? “The 10. The Saturday night. Winning that first Olympic medal.” The long jumper Greg Rutherford, the heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and Farah won gold medals for Team GB within a 45-minute period – 4 August 2012 became known as Super Saturday. In 2020, a BBC sports panel voted it the greatest British moment at a summer Olympics.

I ask him what image comes up when he closes his eyes. He shuts them and re-enacts that moment when he crossed the line, his eyes on stalks, forming a Mobot with his hands over his head. “I wasn’t in control of my body. I knew with four laps to go there’s a good chance I could get a medal. So hold it, hold it, and each lap, as it gets shorter and shorter, Kenenisa [Bekele, the defending champion] is still there. And going into the last lap, I’m [thinking] hold the lead, hold the lead, and at that point the whole stadium is going crazy. Crazy. The finish cameras were moving because of the noise. They’ve never had it like that before.”

And now, he says, came the very best bit – Tania and Rihanna joining him on the track. “With my story, my life, my family being on the track and seeing what I did was huge. I wanted to celebrate with them and hug.” He comes to an emotional stop. “If you know my story now, you probably understand a bit more.”

What did he do that night? “I didn’t get back to the athlete’s village till about midnight. I had a Big Mac meal – two Macs and a strawberry milkshake.” How many portions of chips? “Just one. I’m not a big fan of chips. Barbecue sauce, of course.”

Did he sleep well? “I couldn’t get any sleep.” How did his head feel? “Just emotions. Really, did I do it? The atmosphere! People coming up to you all the time.”

Winning the 10,000m took the pressure off for the 5,000m. “It was like: I’ve won a gold; let’s see if I can win one more. It was possible. I had that confidence going into it. Whereas other athletes were chasing after the 10,000, for me it was: if I don’t win, it’s fine, but I’m going to go after it.”

Four years later, in 2016, he pulled off the double-double again in Rio. It’s hard to imagine such an achievement being equalled in British athletics. Was the feeling as good as London? “No! Because London was the moment. Rio was amazing to win and to win that double was incredible. But there’s no place like London! That feeling, that atmosphere, the people.” He is talking in a whisper, awed by the memory. “That was my home town!”

***

Perhaps there is another reason why Rio wasn’t as good. In the intervening years, suspicions had grown about Salazar. Farah’s relationship with the coach caused huge friction between him and the press. In 2017, two years before Salazar was banned, Farah announced he was leaving him. (In 2021, Salazar received a lifetime ban from involvement in any Olympic or Paralympic sport for emotional and sexual misconduct.)

Farah’s relationship with Salazar has dogged the latter part of his career. Farah never failed a drugs test, but people asked why he remained with a coach who was the source of such speculation. Farah withdrew from the media. He rarely gave interviews and appeared defensive – angry, even – on the occasions he did.

Before the interview today, I had been told he wouldn’t discuss Salazar. But when I ask, he answers openly. Did Salazar teach him a lot? “Yes,” he says. “You can’t forget what someone contributed to your career. And he gave me self-belief, to make me think I belonged here.”

He knows he became prickly with the press and says he found it difficult when journalists wanted to speak only about Salazar. “It was hard for me to deal with it when you’re under constant attack,” he says. For the first time, he struggles to express himself. He suggests he didn’t have the language or knowhow to deal with the press. “I was that boy who was [under attack] by 20 guys who had the talent to be a journalist. I could have dealt with it better by having a bit more understanding.”

I wanted to try the marathon, even though I wasn’t that good at the marathon, let’s be honest

In what way? “I didn’t understand that it wasn’t about me. When people first started to talk about him, it would have been easier to get out of that situation.” Does he wish he had got out earlier? “Nooooo,” he says. But he sounds unsure. Again, he says it would have been easier to leave. “Overall, it showed the kind of person I am. Loyal. I always like to give the benefit of the doubt.”

After the 2017 world championships, at which he won gold in the 10,000m and silver in the 5,000m, Farah announced his retirement from the track. But Farah being Farah, he saw this as an opportunity to announce his new mission. He planned to become a champion marathon runner. In April 2018, having just turned 35, he finished third in the London Marathon, setting a new British record. Six months later, he won the Chicago Marathon with a new European record time of 2hr 5min 11sec.

“I felt I’d done everything on the track and I wasn’t afraid to go and find a new thing. I wanted to try the marathon, even though I wasn’t that good at the marathon, let’s be honest.” There is not even a hint of a smile. I am lost for words. Are you joking, I ask. He smiles, gently. “No, genuinely. You could say two hours five minutes is decent, but if you compare my time with the best guys what they’re running …”

Perhaps it’s only now that I realise the extent of Farah’s drive. Did he really think, in his mid-30s, he could achieve as much as he had in the 5,000m and 10,000m in the marathon? “Yeah, I did,” he says. You did astonishingly well in it, I say. “I gave it 100%, that’s all I can say.”

***

Perhaps his greatest challenge came shortly before he announced his retirement, when he decided to confront his past and go public about being trafficked. He says he had been waiting so long for the opportunity, but he didn’t want to put his career at risk. There were so many reasons why he felt he couldn’t talk about it, he says – shame, fear, having to admit that his previous life story was a fiction, not knowing where to start. “As a victim, you never stop blaming yourself,” he says. “You always live with it.”

In the end, it was seeing his twins reach the age he was when he was trafficked that made him open up. “When I started talking about it, they were going on 10, and when I was a nine-year-old there’s me with a new world.” He pulls away, unsure where to go. “Families mean everything to me. That’s why you saw my oldest girl on the track with my wife in 2012, because they’re part of me. And I always promised myself: whatever I didn’t have as a kid with family, my family would have.”

The twins had started asking questions, he says. “They were like: ‘Dad, where’s Grandma? Why can’t she come over here? Where’s your twin brother? How many brothers do you have?’ And I was just like: well they live in Somalia.” Over the years, bits and pieces emerged about his past. Just after the 2012 Olympics, the Daily Mail tracked down his identical twin brother, Hassan, a telecoms engineer, and did a Sliding Doors story; what if Farah had stayed in Somaliland and Hassan, who was also a gifted runner as a boy, had come to England? Hassan told the Mail: “Who knows what I could have become? We could have been famous twin Olympic athletes.”

Opening up about his past wasn’t just a private matter. There were so many inconsistencies in his public story. I remind him of the first time we met and how he told me it was wonderful to be reunited with his father. He looks embarrassed. How hard was it to create a narrative for public consumption? “To me, it’s sad. After 2012, I couldn’t talk about it. I had to protect myself and that was the story that I was told to say. I was advised. I just didn’t want anything in the way of my career … I knew, when the time was right, I’d be able to talk about it and have that relief. But it was hard.”

He says it wasn’t a fear of being exposed that made him go public. After all, the Home Office had known the truth for almost 30 years. But he preferred it to come out on his terms. “I wasn’t scared of it. I just wanted people to understand me, for people to see me as me. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, to explain what happened to me, trying to get to the bottom of it for myself and my family.”

He still doesn’t know the full truth; he doubts he ever will. “Before I made the BBC documentary, I knew bits of it. But I wanted to understand the trafficking bit.” When he went back to Somaliland for the first time, in 2003, he was relieved to discover his mother was still alive. When he returned in 2022, he wanted to know why and how he had been sent to England. “It wasn’t until then that I talked with Mum and the family about it.”

Did he blame her? “I wouldn’t say ‘blame’, because I know my mum was a mess. She couldn’t deal with the death of my father and all the kids – there were eight of us. To lose somebody in the way my dad was killed was difficult for all of us, even to talk about, let alone deal with.” He pauses. “I could understand that part, but I couldn’t understand the other part, and I don’t know if my mum will ever know what happened to me. When I was making that documentary, I was very open and put her on the spot and said: ‘Mum, can you please answer me?’ And she did answer me, as well as she could.” He still seems unsure whether she knew about the trafficking.

He told his children. What did they say? “One of the twins started to cry. She said: ‘I can’t believe people would do that kind of stuff.’ It wasn’t easy and it’s still not easy for me to talk about.”

Does he still think of himself as Hussein, rather than Mo? It’s complicated, he says. “That name was given to me by my father. I don’t have a single photo of him. So the name makes me proud.” The name is a reminder of his history and, in particular, his father. “I wanted to keep that name within the family, and that’s why we called our son Hussein – and now he knows the full story. He talks about the name now, because he knows what it represents. He was with a friend who was also called Hussein the other day and I said: ‘There are two Husseins,’ and he said: ‘No, there are three Husseins!’” His son’s full name tells the story of both of Farah’s lives – Hussein Mo Farah.

As for Farah, he is embracing life post-retirement. He is now the national school sport champion for the Youth Sport Trust. “This is huge for me, because if it hadn’t been for my PE teacher supporting me, taking me to the local running club, I wouldn’t have had a career. So it’s showing people what they can achieve with sport.” He has launched Mo’s Mission, which encourages children to be physically active for 60 minutes a day. “Diabetes, obesity, mental health, we need to attack it all,” he says. Farah is also the first global goodwill ambassador for the UN’s International Organization for Migration. Perhaps there is a future for you in politics, I suggest. He looks interested. “Well, let’s do it!”

He says the best thing about retiring is being able to spend time with his family and eating whatever he fancies. What’s his favourite? “Sticky toffee pudding with custard.” He used to run up to 135 miles a week. How much is he doing now? “About 10 miles this week. Not a lot. I’m chilling out, spending more time with the kids, ironing.” Ironing? “Yeah, I enjoy a bit of that.” You still look supremely fit, I say. He reminds me he has been retired for only a few months. “Give it another year. It will be like Mo Belly’s coming for you!” He bursts out laughing. Does he think he will take it easy now? He gives me a look. No way, he says – it’s not in his nature. “That drive is still there. I’ve got to find a new passion.”

It’s funny, he says; it’s only now that he is addressing his past that he has started to understand what gave him that phenomenal drive. The first time he heard the word trafficking used in the context of what had happened to him, he found it hard to accept. “I was like: does such a thing exist? I thought it was just me. And then when you talk to experts and see it more and more, you’re like: fuck, it’s a crazy world.” He finally feels comfortable saying he is a trafficking victim. He believes it’s important for him to do so, for all those less fortunate.

He has started to reassess his success in relation to his past. Now, he would say he has achieved so much not in spite of his past, but because of it. Even if he had never won a single medal, running would have transformed his life. As a child, it was one of the few things in his life that he could control. “I could train, I could push beyond anybody else, and that for me was a way out. It was a way of being freed. Without running, I don’t think I would ever have been free,” he says. “Running saved me.”

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