A tribute to (and long interview with) the great Mo Farah
Posted on 5 August 2017 | 8:08am
Sometimes, as I moan and groan about backache, Brexit, or Burnley selling Michael Keane, I perhaps overlook just how blessed I am. To quote the fantastic Hebridean band Skipinnish ‘feel the wonder of the world, you are alive.‘
I had one of those feeling blessed moments last night in the build up to, and then the running of, Mo Farah’s incredible 10k race in the IAAF World Championships.
‘What’s he really like!’ my partner Fiona asked as Mo splashed his face with water and urged the crowd to even greater support. And earlier, as Usain Bolt strutted his stuff as only Bolt can, she asked: ‘is he as amazing as he looks?’
And I thought, both questions stem from the fact I have been lucky enough to meet, and talk properly at length, to both. Then as the coverage switched to the commentary box, and the panel, I thought I was lucky enough to have met all of them, and to count some, especially Brendan Foster and Steve Cram, as good friends. So blessed, yes, to be able to watch a race like last night’s and feel emotionally connected, as well as just enjoying a truly remarkable feat of running, when everything imaginable was thrown at Mo – fair to say the best of the rest of the field were working together – and he stood up to it. Those last eye-popping, sinew-torturing eighty yards are what he is talking about below, the mental side of his sport.
While on the subject of Brendan Foster – he knows I am no fan of the honours system … but given we have one, when is the government going to get round to advising Her Maj to tip the Big Bren shoulders with the point of a sword, and make him Sir Brendan? His athletics and broadcasting achievements are impressive enough. But what he has created with the Great North Run and the related Runs and Swims around the world is a serious business success and a major contribution to the North East, to health, to sport, to culture. I can think of few more deserving of the kind of recognition the honours system is for.
Now – back to Sir Mo. He already has his K. And deserves it too. What he had achieved even before last night puts him in the top echelons of greatest ever athletes and of greatest ever Brits. His back story as a young immigrant who knew next to nothing about his adoptive country – he thought we were the same country as Holland, as you shall see – strengthens rather than weakens that claim. It was fitting that he should receive his gold medal from Seb Coe, who has more letters after his name than he has in it, including the Order of Merit, (which unlike the others really is granted by the Queen). Seb is another who can take his place in the pantheon of great runners and truly great Brits.
He is another top bloke athletics figure I know well, not least from our sparring days when he was working for William Hague and I was with Tony Blair. So as the gold medal went around Mo’s neck, I thought it was time to dig out some old interviews I have done with GQ. Not that old mind you … both the Farah and Bolt interviews were done after I wrote Winners and How They Succeed. But they sure as hell have to be with Seb and Brendan in any future edition.
Anyway today, here is the interview with Mo. It was conducted before the Rio Olympics, but it gives some insight into his fabulous personality, his approach to his art and his life and above all the sacrifices he has to make. There are also some extracts that were cut from the GQ magazine for length reasons … I hope Piers Morgan reads Mo’s love-in with Arsène Wenger, for example!
I will post the interview with Bolt tomorrow, hopefully after another Gold. Seb to follow.
Meanwhile enjoy the rest of the Championships.
Here is the Mo piece from GQ early last year…. read to the end for one of his best lines!
If Mo Farah had stayed in his native Somalia, even athletics fans would almost certainly never have heard of him. Unlike other African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, it is not a running nation, and it is unlikely his talent would have been realised. When his family did leave home – minus his sick twin brother Hassan, whom he would not see for twelve years – the surprise is that he ended up in Britain, not Holland, where the grandma he was hoping to live with was then living. In any event, as he explains, he thought Holland was part of England.
The Netherlands’ loss was Britain’s gain as one of the many weird turns in his life took the young Farah to Feltham, West London, where, unable to speak a word of English, he started a new school and a new life.
Despite his laid back, laddish approach to life, and his fanaticism for football, thanks to teachers and coaches his athletics prowess was indeed spotted and his potential realised. The highlight of a glittering career was without doubt the London 2012 Olympics where he landed the most famous of several double Golds, over 10,000 and 5,000 metres. It put him among the all time British greats. When he followed up with more double doubles at successive major Games, including last year’s World Championships, it led former athlete turned BBC commentator Brendan Foster to say Farah was not just Britain’s greatest ever runner, but our greatest ever sportsman. He is now 33, famous, wealthy and proud father to a growing family. But he wants more Gold medals before he settles down to another new life working – dream job – for Arsenal FC.
I spoke to him in Edinburgh where he was preparing for the first race of this, another Olympic year, in which everything he does is about getting ready for Rio. It means more training in Africa, more pain, more separation from his family, more missed Arsenal matches. But if there is more gold at the end of it, there will be more of the Mo Farah smile that has lit up stadia around the world. And it will go some way towards wiping away the bad memories of last year, when his coach and more crucially his sport were constantly embroiled in doping controversy. That is where we started when we sat down together in Scotland.
AC: So let’s start with your sport. Are you worried where it is right now [height of doping scandals, including Russia]?
MF: Yeah, to be honest I am. It’s what we do, what we love, you never want to see it in a bad state and it is in a bad place. The question is how long has all this being going on? It hasn’t got to this overnight.
AC: Why is it in this place? When you think about how fantastic the London Olympics were …
MF: The Olympics were the best thing that ever happened, they changed the whole nation. I guess some other countries and people don’t take doping as seriously as we do. As an athlete, you put in so much hard work and success brings you a lot of things and it happens because you work and get better than anyone else. But there have to be the same rules for everyone.
AC: How much does drug-testing impact on your life?
MF: I am used to it. It’s just part of what you do.
AC: Have you ever been unable to pee?
MF: I’ve had times after a race when it takes six, seven hours, because I have sweated everything out.
AC: What are the testers like? Kind of weird job, just waiting for people to pee.
MF: They’re nice guys mainly, just doing a job. You have to give them a one hour slot every day, tell them where you will be, and they can come any day and if you are not where you said you’d be, that counts as a missed test. They tend not to bother you just before a race, but I’ve had them 10 o’clock the night before a race. I’ve asked them why we can’t be tagged so they know where we are and they can test us any time?
AC: You’d be happy with that?
AC: Do you feel for Seb Coe taking on the IAAF? He has quite a job there.
MF: I do feel for him, yeah. He is a great guy, a role model, someone I’ve looked up to for years, it’s incredible what he has done for the sport and for the country. It is a difficult role, he has gone in there and everyone expects a lot from him.
AC: Do you feel he has to be tough?
MF: He has got to be really tough. We need really tough rules. If every country did what we did, Britain, Sweden, some of the others …
AC: Are other countries not up there?
MF: No, they’re not.
AC: But Kenya, Ethiopia, great runners, but poorer countries, maybe without the infrastructure to do it the same way.
MF: Course they can do it. I don’t like this idea that other countries can’t do it. There’s got to be the same rules for everyone. If I am lining up for a race, and I know there is someone there who cheats, it upsets me.
AC: Have you ever lost a race to a cheat?
MF: For sure I have. I know I’ve been beaten by a cheat.
AC: Like when?
MF: European cross country, I think it was Dublin 2009, I finished second to this guy, [Alemayehu] Bezabeh [Ethiopian born Spaniard, who was arrested while carrying bags of his own blood]. I did everything in the race, collapsed at the end, and I knew. Anyway he has been done, got a two year ban, now he is back. When I see him, I don’t say hello, I don’t shake his hand, I am hardline.
AC: I spoke to Seb about this and his thing was about redemption. Do you see any place for that, someone does wrong, admits it, gets punished, comes back?
MF: I am hardline when it comes to my sport. I have just said goodbye to my wife and kids, my young boy just a few months old, I won’t see them for two months now because I am working, in a training camp, lock myself away, train day in day out, to be the best I can be, so it upsets me if people do it cheating.
AC: Why don’t the family come with you?
MF: Because that would be a distraction. I have to focus – eat, sleep, train, eat, sleep, train – that’s it.
AC: You said that the two weeks following the allegations made against [coach] Alberto Salazar and [training partner] Galen Rupp were the toughest of your life, because people were pinning it on you. So what did you say to them?
MF: I went over and I talked to Alberto, I wanted answers. I said you have to be honest with me, I need to know the truth.
AC: And do you feel you do know the truth?
MF: I feel I know as much as I can.
AC: I read every word of that incredibly long rebuttal he did.
MF: And what did you think?
AC: I found it pretty compelling, but then I got to the bit about him posting Galen’s pills to him inside a cut-out paperback book, and I thought ‘this is weird…’
MF: Yeah but that’s Alberto, he can be weird, he does stuff like that.
AC: You and Galen have trained together a lot.
MF: A lot, yeah.
AC: If he was cheating …
MF: I should know.
AC: Is it possible for you to train so closely with someone and not know?
MF: It’s hard to say. Most of the time, you know, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. But I am long distance, so you’re doing trails, you’re out in parks, I don’t know …
AC: So you could get away with stuff, do stuff without you knowing?
MF: I would not bet my life on it. For me I have been trying to concentrate on myself. This thing was all being blown up as being about me.
AC: But you’re not someone who just thinks about yourself. When you won the 10,000 in London, you crossed the line and the first thing you did was look round for Galen.
MF: Yeah, when I won I looked back.
AC: So you guys are close?
MF: Yeah. In training camp you know what each person is doing.
AC: And you are as sure as you can be he is not a cheat?
MF: Yeah, as far as I can be.
AC: Now Salazar is a winner, right? He has to win.
AC: I interviewed Lance Armstrong before he got done, and I believed him, and in his denials he was pressing a lot of the same buttons as Salazar – interest in technology and science, most tested ever, this kind of thing.
MF: Yeah, people say that … ‘same as Lance said…’
AC: Do you get some of that?
MF: This is one of the reasons I want to put all my tests out there.
AC: Get tagged, get tested, every day?
MF: I would love that. I would be the first to put my hand up for that. Tag me, test me, every day.
AC: When was the last time you were tested?
MF: A week ago.
AC: Do you get to know the guys personally?
MF: Can be anyone. There are three different testing organisations.
AC: Ever had three the same day?
MF: No. But I had two the same day. Ok, it can be annoying if you’re with your family and stuff, but it’s fine.
AC: When they arrive, for the kids does it not feel like the cops turning up?
MF: The twins and the baby are too young, but Rihanna knows what’s going on. She’s ok with it.
AC: So you’re still with Alberto, you still trust and respect him?
MF: Yes I do trust him. But my eyes are wide open.
AC: When does it all get resolved?
MF: I think it is resolved with him.
AC: Why have they not sued the media that made the allegations, him and Galen?
MF: I don’t know.
AC: If the allegations had been against you, would you have sued?
MF: Absolutely. Of course I would.
AC: So why not them?
MF: For me, it was like even though it was about them, my name was dragged through the mud and I was tired of it.
AC: You must also be conscious, you know Britain well enough, our media loves to build people up …
MF: (laughs) … so they can knock ‘em down.
AC: Do you think they would like to do that to you?
MF: Of course, why not? That is the reality. They want to sell a story.
AC: Do you feel popular in the UK?
MF: Yeah, I do.
AC: Do you like being popular? Do you care?
MF: I’ve always been popular, even as a child, it’s not just about being good at running. I was a lad, always up for a laugh. I still am, but I need to be careful, keep my feet on the ground.
AC: Do you like being famous?
MF: I like it because it means I can go to Arsenal and hang out with the players?
AC: Is that it? Nothing else?
MF: (laughs) Hey, this is something you dream of as a kid.
AC: Reading your book, it’s clear you really love Arsene Wenger.
MF: He is a great manager. You meet people, like you do, Alastair, like I do, and you really get to see them, and here he is, this manager, he has been there the longest, but also the club operates so well, better than other clubs. It has real values because he does, and I have real values.
AC: But hold on. There is a picture of him in your book …
MF: Yeah, he’s holding my baby, Aisha, one of the twins. (laughs)
AC: And I am thinking, this guy Mo didn’t have much of a relationship with his father, is there some kind of big father figure Arsene going on?
MF: He’s just Wenger.
MF: So special. (laughs)
AC: So you have never been on the ‘Wenger Out’ bandwagon?
MF: Never. Never. Ever.
AC: Do you like being well off?
MF: It helps. What drives me is knowing my kids will have a better life and do special things. I never had those chances.
AC: But you’ve done special things and maybe that is because you had a tough background?
MF: Maybe. I want my kids to compete and work hard too. Rihanna swims, she was second in the State of Oregon, I want her to work hard at that. I want my kids to have a good life and money helps. But it is not what drives me. What drives me is getting up on that podium.
AC: And what do you do when that stops?
MF: I hang up my spikes. I am never going to go jogging. I will stay in sport, I will want challenges. But you will never see me jog.
AC: Now this is Olympic Year. Are you going for the double again [10k and 5k] in Rio?
MF: The double double.
AC: Double double double double.
MF: I did the European double 2010, gold and silver 2011 Worlds, double Olympics, double in Moscow, double in Beijing last year. And I did the double in the Europeans 2014 wasn’t it?
AC: That’s a lot of doubles. So you’re going for the double in Rio and then the double in the Worlds next year?
MF: (nods and smiles) That is in my mind. I’m 33 though, and as you get older, your body doesn’t always align so much. So I can’t maybe train the same.
AC: How much did you run this morning?
MF: I came straight from the airport. I’ll run tonight. I did a session with Alberto in the States yesterday.
AC: And tonight, you’ll just put on your gear and go for a run round Edinburgh?
AC: Do people not try and stop you?
MF: They might say hi. I’ll have my headphones on. People are nice.
AC: Does anyone ever try and race you?
MF: Race me? No chance! (laughs)
AC: So how do you plan out the season?
MF: I have a system of colours. So like deep red is important. Olympics is red, dark red. A lesser race might be light red.
AC: What is now?
MF: Kind of orange. Training. Doing a race but maybe not such a big one, like this weekend.
AC: So do you care if you win or not?
MF: Oh yeah. I want to win every race I do.
AC: So you have like the year gridded out?
MF: Yeah, with the times and the dates and the training between.
AC: When you’re on the road, and Alberto is in the States, are you in constant touch or are you in charge of training?
MF: I am in charge of my own training. I know when I need to do a session, then we might discuss it, vary the pace maybe.
AC: So that thing about listening to your body …
MF: That is real. Listening to your body is real.
AC: You have an interesting relationship with pain. When I say ‘pain,’ what does that say to you?
MF: Pain …. Like I’m gone, I’m gone, I can’t take this.
AC: So how can you run like that?
MF: You have to. 110 per cent. I will collapse if I have to.
AC: Is that why you and Alberto get on? He was a top athlete and he nearly died running a race, didn’t he?
MF: Yeah he did. He nearly died. And he said ‘I never saw anyone like you…’
AC: Meaning you?
MF: Yeah, he said he never saw anyone like me. I did a session once when I was ill, two miles, one and a half miles, then something else, and the other guys were getting a gap on me, they were going quicker than he asked them to, and I let them go a bit then closed them in and closed them in, I took the lead and held them off and he said ‘how do you do that? I could tell you were working twice as hard as they were.’ But I do. I don’t want to lose anything.
AC: How high does your pulse go?
MF: At the end of a tempo session it’ll be 180. Average on a run maybe 140.
AC: In the morning?
MF: 37, 38. I’ve got this thing now [goes to his watch], and it can track my pulse, and then I upload it all to here after a run [goes to his phone, taps in pin]
AC: Is that your pin? Not hard to hack?
MF: Serious? They’re my favourite numbers (laughs) Anyway, you see, I can put in a time and see how hard I was pushing, see my heartbeat. I sometimes use it on the treadmill.
AC: Why would you run on a treadmill?
MF: I’ve got this room at home, my mancave, it’s got a pool table, TV, treadmill, I put the football on, get on the treadmill, it’s almost like I am not running, I’m watching TV, just clocking up miles.
AC: Do you worry about getting colds a lot?
MF: I’ve got four kids. What can you do? You have kids, you get colds. You’ve got to be a parent.
AC: What does your religion mean to you?
MF: My religion means a lot to me. It is one of the reasons I am like I am. I feel some things you can control, some you can’t. I am not the most religious person in the world but I do believe.
AC: I was on a plane from the Gulf recently and half way through the guy next to me got out his compass, got on his knees and prayed.
MF: That’s not me. I won’t do that but I try to pray five times a day.
AC: So how do you feel about the way your religion is being used by groups like ISIS? Does it upset you they say it is religious?
MF: It’s not true. That’s not religion, no chance. They’re not doing it for religion because religion is peaceful. I believe no matter who you are, respect yourself, respect others.
AC: But the world is not like that.
MF: No, the world is not like that. I like to feel people are nice, positive. Those people are not.
AC: Do you welcome the idea of being a role model, or does it worry you?
MF: I welcome it, because of kids. If people look to me and try to be good at what they do, like how I used to look up to footballers growing up.
AC: But loads of footballers do bad stuff, they can’t all be role models.
MF: When you love someone it is for what they do, and I loved footballers. I looked up to them. Even today, when I am going down to the Emirates, I am so happy, I am a little kid, I still get that feeling. Now kids spend a lot of time indoors. Maybe I can help get them out more, go for a run, get fit.
AC: Do you feel the London 2012 Legacy is real?
MF: 2012 was so good. I think we are getting there slowly, it won’t change overnight. Technology has slowed people down. Before all this technology we had more kids in the park.
AC: You manage to do both, play your silly computer games and run.
MF: I do. I play my silly computer games, and I run a lot. I make my kids run too, and they come to the gym with me.
AC: You grew up as part of an extended family, away from your parents a lot, often with your grandma. But I must be honest, when you talk about Rihanna, it’s strange to me that you see her as your daughter the same as the other three, when she has a different biological father.
MF: She is. It upsets me when people say she’s my stepdaughter. She is not.
AC: Does she have any relationship with her biological father?
MF: No. He’s gone.
AC: And when you were chasing Tania, were you not mega-jealous that she was off having a baby with another guy? I don’t know many British men who wouldn’t be?
MF: (laughs) I was just determined. I set my mind to it. I was going to get Tania. And the minute I met Rihanna I loved her.
AC: So if she walks in here now she is your kid the same as the twins and the little baby?
MF: The same.
AC: And is she not curious about her biological father?
MF: She sees me as her dad.
AC: Now your twin brother Hassan, who has always been in Somalia. When you speak do you speak in Somali?
MF: Yeah, Somali. He picks up some English words. He is cleverer than me but he is not disciplined. I asked my grandma why we were so different. She said when we were small, if she asked him to go to buy something, it would take two hours because he stopped and talked to everyone. I would just run there and run back.
AC: He didn’t like England when he finally came here. Why was that?
MF: He didn’t like all the things you have to do. Training, lunch at a certain time, making appointments. He is too chilled, likes getting his food made for him. They have a good life though. He is a mechanic.
AC: How Somali do you feel?
MF: I do feel Somali. That is never going to leave me, but it is so different. I say ‘please’ and they go ‘huh?’ I go in the kitchen to make an omelette and they go ‘why you in the kitchen? No men in the kitchen.’ (laughs)
AC: It is weird to think you could have been Dutch because when you left Somalia your grandma lived in Holland and you thought you were going there?
MF: I know. And I thought England and Holland was the same country.
AC: Your life has had a lot of weird turns.
MF: Mate, I know. One day, it would be nice to trace it back, point to point, try and work out what was going on in my mind.
AC: Even the thing about moving to Europe and leaving your brother behind because he was ill, and thinking it would be a few weeks and it was twelve years before you saw him?
MF: Twelve years, yeah. But you know, I think everything is meant to be. That is a part of my faith. What could I change at that stage?
AC: How tough was it being at a new school in England, unable to speak a word of English?
MF: Difficult, it was difficult.
AC: Feels kind of impossible to me; can’t imagine it.
MF: Not impossible. But difficult.
AC: How quickly before you learned to speak ok?
MF: I’m still learning (laughs). Maybe six months. I watched TV, asked questions, and then I see a billboard and I go ‘wow, I know what that means.’ But I’ve got to be honest, I never thought this kind of thing, I’d be sitting here now, talking to you, going ‘I won this medal, then I won that.’
AC: How much of your work is mental?
MF: Half and half. There are definitely other people who could do what I do, but they don’t have the mental side.
AC: So what takes you to the next level?
MF: I hate losing. And I can deal with pressure.
AC: Do you hate losing more than you like winning?
MF: That’s a great question.
AC: I think Wenger hates losing more than he likes winning.
MF: They are both equally strong for me. You have different feelings for different wins. A local race, ok. But the Olympics, because of everything you went through to get it, and because it will change your life.
AC: What about playing cards?
MF: Yeah, I wanna win. But if I lose, it’s not a killer.
AC: But you love winning races?
MF: Yeah, and hate losing. I figure out how I won, and I analyse it. If I lose, I analyse why I lost. Most people don’t know this but I study my own races a lot, and I study the races of my competitors. Maybe on the treadmill again, just put on the tapes.
AC: What do you learn?
MF: I envision things. I figure out how I won, how I felt. If I lost I figure out why, mistakes I made, figure out where the others are strong, where they are weak.
AC: You’ve had a bit of stick for focusing more on medals than setting new world records. Do you think some of the records are unbeatable because people ran faster in an era when doping controls were weaker
MF: I love winning races, but of course times matter. I was on my honeymoon and this guy breaks 27 minutes for 10k, and I’m going ‘hey, what’s this, I need to get training more, how do I go lower?’ But you have to be realistic. Do I see myself running a 5k world record? No. Maybe more chance at 10k, but it is still a huge jump. At 5k my best is 12.53. Kenenisa Bekele’s record is 12.37. In the 10k, it’s 26.17 and my best is 26.46. That is thirty seconds. I want to give it a crack but that is difficult.
AC: Are you surprised how big the Mobot is as a phenomenon?
MF: James Corden, genius, he started that on League of Their Own when he said I should do something special if I won, then Clare Balding came up with the M, and I said I would do it. It’s amazing how that spread. And now James Corden is big in America.
AC: Has he had you on there yet?
MF: No, I want to do that.
AC: You should do that karaoke thing he does in people’s cars.
MF: Is that what they call it, karaoke? He’s had Justin Bieber, everyone. Amazing.
AC: Do people ask you to do the Mobot all the time?
MF: Yeah, a bit, and they send pictures of themselves doing it.
AC: Is it a pain in the arse getting asked all the time?
MF: It’s fine. But not when you’re in a restaurant having a meal with the family.
AC: Do you ever get low?
MF: Yeah. Family stuff, like when your kids are ill, and you can’t be there. Sometimes it gets to me as well that people see you and they think you should be like they think you are.
AC: So do you get low, or get depressed?
MF: Low. I don’t get depressed. I always try to think positive.
AC: I loved when Piers Morgan asked if you ever just hid away in your mancave and put your Gold medals round your neck and swanked around?
MF: I never did that. Maybe I should. (laughs) In my head, here, now, I’m thinking maybe just once, before my body goes, I just take a picture of me in there, naked, with my medals on. (laughs) Do you think it would get out?
AC: Keep it on your phone with that really hard-to-crack pin code. So listen, if you had not made it as a runner, what do you think you’d have been?
MF: Probably a mechanic. Something manual. I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
AC: That’s rubbish. Learning English like you did, coming over to a foreign country.
MF: No honestly, I am not, I am not an office guy. I can put things together, take things apart. We’re all good at different things.
AC: So what will you be doing in ten years?
MF: Still in athletics, for sure. No, not athletics, I mean still in sport.
AC: Ah, Arsenal!
MF: Fitness coach for them, I could do that. It’s amazing what we don’t know about our bodies.
AC: Are you political?
MF: No. Well, what do you mean ‘political?’
AC: Do you have strong political views?
MF: About what?
AC: Well, did you vote at the election?
MF: No, I was in America.
AC: Would you have voted if you were here?
AC: What would you have voted?
MF: (laughs) Not saying. That’s going to upset some people if I do. I don’t want to talk politics, but what I do say is I believe in rules and laws and if you come to this country, you’ve got to abide by the rules here. It’s what it is. Deal with it.
AC: What about Europe, will you vote in the referendum?
MF: Not answering. (laughs)
AC: In your book you wrote about how you couldn’t get to a race in Belgium because you needed a visa. What if all that comes back if we are out of Europe?
MF: No, we shouldn’t get out of Europe, should we?
AC: Definitely not. So will you vote?
MF: Can I vote? Yeah, I can vote. Ok, I’ll vote stay in. (shakes hands)
AC: Were you disappointed given you did the Olympics/Worlds double double, which was incredible, that you didn’t do better in Sports Personality of the Year?
MF: It is just one of those things, Alastair. I have my medals, I will always have those. It would be nice to win that, but it doesn’t really matter.
AC: By the way, I can’t believe you almost joined the Army.
MF: Yeah, I saw it as a way to be able to do lots of training.
AC: Would you have been a good soldier?
MF: No, I would have been a good runner. (laughs)