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Issue 549/ 4th - 10th Aug 2012
Strides From War Zone Into The Hearts Of The Nation:
By David Jones
For those of us privileged to have been in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night, the rapturous celebration that followed Mo Farah’s victory will endure as one of the defining moments of these glorious Games.
As the beaming runner draped a Union Flag around his slender shoulders and beckoned his wife Tania, heavily pregnant with twins, and step-daughter Rhianna, aged six, down on to the track to share his joy, he seemed the embodiment of the core pledge behind this Olympiad – that London 2012 would ‘inspire a generation’.
And although, as one family member told me yesterday, Mo sometimes felt unwelcome when he first arrived in Britain from Somalia at the age of eight, the heartfelt cheers of a packed Olympic Stadium surely dispelled any lingering doubt that he truly belongs here.
Uplifting as his story may be, however, it could easily have turned out very differently.
For in his early years in the predominantly white district of Feltham in West London, he was sometimes picked on, and his refusal to be cowed meant he was forever getting into fights.
Indeed, his former PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, said he was left with little choice but to exclude Mo from school for a few days after he was caught in the thick of a ‘big ruck’ – just hours after being warned that fighting would be punished by suspension.
Having been insulated inside a small, closely-knit Somali community and learned just a few English phrases during his first few years here (among them ‘where’s the toilet?’ and, when he felt threatened, ‘come on then!’), Mo also tried to win attention by disrupting his class at Feltham Community School.
For example, when a teacher’s back was turned he would suddenly bellow like a lion and he was forever giggling. Although bright, his academic achievements were virtually zero – which was not surprising given that he hadn’t a clue what was going on in lessons.
He was saved from the path that so many other alienated immigrant children follow by the dedication and professionalism of Mr Watkinson and subsequent coaches, who identified his enormous athletic potential and made considerable sacrifices to ensure he achieved it.
But, of course, Mo wouldn’t have stood on the winner’s podium yesterday, his chest swelling as the national anthem played, were it not for his astonishing natural talent and self-motivation.
Though it is always said he comes from Mogadishu, the war-torn capital of Somalia, his remarkable journey, according to friends, began in the north-western city of Gabiley, where Mo was born into a family of modest means in 1983.
His father, Muktar, was living in West London, but had met and married Mo’s mother on a trip to his homeland.
At that time, rebel forces in the territory, now called Somaliland, had declared independence and it was besieged by government forces.
Since then, the country has become relatively stable and prosperous.
The city nestles in a range of 4,000ft mountains and Mo was constantly asked to run errands. Doubtless this helped build up his enormous reserves of lung power.
Like so many East African runners, he is also blessed with a vast-striding, antelope-like gait.
When he was seven, however, Mo went to live with better-off relatives in the safer, neighboring country of Djibouti. According to an old friend, Faisal Musa, his nickname was ‘Bine Bine’; the title of a comedy film which he watched repeatedly.
Mr Musa told the Mail: ‘We don’t care whether he is British or Somali. He is one of us.’
Perhaps so, but such is the nomadic lifestyle of many Somali families, who move to Europe to better themselves and escape the privations of life in the Horn of Africa, that Mo was soon being uprooted again. He hoped to stay with his beloved grandmother who’d migrated to Holland but he also wanted to be with his father, who had returned to London, where he worked as an IT consultant.
And so, during the early Nineties, he arrived in Britain. He found himself living with an aunt and uncle who ran a cafe serving the Somali community. It was apparently some time before he got a place at the local Oriel Junior School.
At that point, Mo showed no interest in athletics; his all-consuming passion was football. He was obviously speedy and was mad about Arsenal and particularly the team’s striker Thierry Henry.
Mo’s brother Hussain is his identical twin. He is not a trained athlete but Mo has told friends he is also naturally rapid – so fast that he beats Farah in their impromptu friendly races.
Mo’s potential as a runner, though, was immediately evident to Mr Watkinson when he arrived at secondary school. While other boys were gasping for breath after running around the playing fields, Mo wasn’t even breathing heavily.
Mr Wilkinson entered him for races despite the youngster not having proper running shoes. But, thankfully, Mo had size nine feet by the age of 11, so the teacher gave him a pair of his old own Nikes.
Mo’s footballing ambitions ended when he failed trials with Brentford FC. But he began winning junior cross country and track races and by 16 he was competing for Great Britain Juniors. Since he didn’t have a UK passport, his teacher spent many hours overcoming bureaucratic minefields so Mo could travel to overseas meetings.
By the time the lad reached school-leaving age, he was given coaches better qualified for the needs of an elite athlete.
At this point, Mr Wilkinson secured a place for him on a PE and leisure course at the Isleworth and Syon School for Boys.
‘Mo could have fallen through the net so easily,’ the 48-year-old teacher told me. ‘He needed a group of people who supported him.
‘A lot of athletes tell the story of how supportive their parents have been. But I don’t think the Somali community understand, or were able to get involved in that way, so I hopefully fulfilled that role,’ he went on.
‘As he progressed and got to know other athletes, they also helped. Paula Radcliffe (the marathon runner) was one who encouraged him a great deal – she even paid for his driving lessons when he got older.’
As Mo has since acknowledged, Radcliffe also impressed on him the importance of living in a manner conducive to reaching the very top.
That meant less time out with his mates.
But there was still a wild streak. Despite being unable to swim, he once leapt stark naked off Kingston Bridge into the swirling current of the Thames after losing a bet.
Indeed, Mo finally grasped the fundamental lifestyle changes needed if he was to become a great athlete when he befriended a group of top Kenyan distance runners who had moved to London.
Seeing the rigid discipline of their daily routine – just eating, resting and training – he moved into a communal house with them in 2005 and followed their methods.
The next year he switched to a shared house run along similar lines by UK Athletics, with like-minded young British athletes. His race times began to improve significantly and he was chosen to represent Britain in the Beijing Olympics but failed to make the 5,000 meters final.
Since then he has made extraordinary strides, and his progress clearly owes much to his newfound contentment as a family man.
Central to this were his future in-laws, Robert and Nadia Nell. The devout Muslims’ three children had attended the same school as Mo. Through Nadia, who has roots in Yemen, they shared an Arab heritage.
Over time, Mo became close to the family, and he and their daughter, Tania, a county-standard heptathlete, represented the same athletics club.
Although friends, they didn’t begin a relationship until 2008, after Tania had split from another man with whom she had her daughter Rhianna.
It was when she and Mo watched an episode of their favorite TV programme, Prison Break, that something clicked. They married in 2010, first in a traditional Muslim ceremony and later a civil wedding in Richmond, where guests included ex-Olympic runner Steve Cram. Mo’s old teacher Mr Wilkinson was honored to serve as best man.
One of the highlights of the day was a video sent by Usain Bolt, who has become a great friend of Mo’s. ‘You’re making a big mistake – don’t get married!’ was the jocular gist of his message.
This was one piece of advice that Mo was never going to follow.
Tania has said: ‘One of my earliest memories of Mo is of this boy coming to school with bleach-blonde Afro-style hair.
'Now, when I look at my husband, this grown man with kids, this amazing champion athlete, it’s quite surreal to think how much he’s changed.’
As Saturday night’s emotional scenes showed, when Rihanna raced onto the track to hug Mo, she treats him as her real dad.
Training routines mean the family now live in Oregon, US. There, Mo runs on a swimming pool treadmill, waist-deep in water, and increases his muscle recovery by immersing himself in an iced-air tank.
As his brother-in-law Colin Nell told me yesterday, Mo feels unequivocally British and he knows no one who is more fiercely patriotic.
When Mo Farah’s athletic career is over, he plans to return to London, the city that transformed a lonely Somali misfit into a truly great Olympian.
Source: The Daily Mail