Sir Mo Farah, one of the most accomplished long-distance runners in history, recently completed the final race of his career. Farah, a British athlete of Somaliland heritage, has achieved numerous accolades and records throughout his illustrious career.
By Jeremy Wilson
Sir Mohamed Farah declared that “running has saved me” after emotionally ending his career on the streets of Newcastle by finishing fourth in the Great North Run.
Now 40, Farah had won the 13.1-mile race six times consecutively between 2014 and 2019 but was four minutes outside his previous best after initially matching the pace of the eventual winner, Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola, who was the world marathon champion last year.
Farah was still the first British finisher in the world’s biggest half-marathon field and, after a career that has included four Olympic and six World Championship gold medals, ended by high-fiving the crowd who had lined the final mile of the race in South Shields.
“Running is everything to me – I have shared my story of what I went through as a child,” said Farah. “Running saved me. It’s very emotional. All I know is running. That is what made me happy for so many years.”
That was in reference to how he was introduced to the sport as an 11-year-old Hounslow schoolboy at a time when he says that he was working as a domestic servant for a local family after being trafficked into the country two years earlier from Somaliland.
Farah spoke no English when he began secondary school in West London, but sport would provide the route to a different life and he now hopes to use his experience to help improve endurance running in this country. Although British athletics is going through something of a golden age in middle-distance running over both the men’s and women’s 800m and 1500m, there was sparse representation at the recent World Championships in the longer events.
Farah, who says that he never really mastered the marathon distance following his hugely successful track career, also remains the only British runner since 2008 to win any of the six annual marathon majors. He admitted that he had hoped to bow out at the Olympics but he was unable to qualify for the delayed Tokyo Games in 2021 after his ‘double double’ of track golds over 5,000m and 10,000m in 2016 and 2012.
“At times I struggled,” he said. “When you win something, you don’t quite appreciate it as much as when you lose. The last couple of years I struggled with injuries – many times I doubted myself. It’s been a hard journey. I wanted to end my career at the Olympics, that was the moment for me I imagined. There’s a lot going through my mind – I’ve won it [the Great North Run] six times, had some amazing memories. I tried my best in the race but it was tough. It’s really important to come out here and give my support to the crowd.”
Tola had finished second behind Farah when he last won the race in 2019 and, after just dipping under the hour (59:58), was followed in by Bashir Abdi and Muktar Edris before Farah in 1:03:28. Olympic marathon champion Peres Jepchirchir won the women’s race in 1:06:45 ahead of Kenya compatriot Sharon Lokedi, with Britain’s Charlotte Purdue third.
Farah remains an inspiration to the ‘father figure’ PE teacher who transformed his life
By Jeremy Wilson
As first impressions go, it was hardly auspicious. Alan Watkinson, an enthusiastic young PE teacher at Feltham Community College in Hounslow, was introducing his new Year Seven class to the javelin and had conveyed a strict set of instructions.
“The basic approach was, ‘Scare the wits out of them so that they will treat the thing with respect’,” he says, smiling. And so half the class were told to sit at a specific place on the field while the other half accompanied Watkinson to collect this set of large metal spears. He then set eyes on an 11-year-old going by the name of Mohamed Farah.
“Mo was swinging from the crossbar of a nearby football goal – that’s my first memory,” he says. “I barked something at him and he came down but he obviously hadn’t understood a word of what I’d said. At that stage in your career, you are just thinking of getting from one lesson to the next and surviving but, looking back, you just think what a huge culture shock it must have been for him. He was going to lessons and not having a clue what was going on. You can’t really comprehend it.”
Farah, born Hussein Abdi Kahin, has since revealed that he was trafficked into the United Kingdom from Somaliland. His father had been killed by a stray mortar during the Somaliland War of Independence and, after arriving in London two years earlier, he says that he was working as a domestic servant for a family in Hounslow.
The school had no inkling of this backstory but they were determined to help and, alongside learning support and specialist English language classes, Farah’s integration was transformed by sport. “It’s a universal language – that was when he was smiling,” says Watkinson. “You would see him getting involved in a big game of football at break time and one of the early things was a cross-country run. He didn’t know where he was going but he would get to the front, look around, wait for the others to catch him up and show him where to go.”
Three decades on and, ahead of what his last competitive race at Sunday’s Great North Run, Farah still described Watkinson as the “father figure” who transformed his life.
Recognizing Farah’s “phenomenal” talent, Watkinson offered to drop him off at the local Hounslow Athletics Club on his way back from school. He was then approached the following year by Farah and a relative, Mahad, who did speak fluent English.
“We sat around a table in the gym and they explained everything about what had happened. How Mo wasn’t Mo, what was happening at home, that he was basically being used as a slave to look after the family’s younger children. He was very, very unhappy and didn’t know what to do and who to tell. He was quite frightened… desperate to get out.”
Watkinson contacted social services and, after dissuading them from potentially moving Farah to Croydon, a mother from the local Somali community – Kinsi – took him in. The transformation, says Watkinson, was vast, and Farah’s running would also go from strength to strength. He became a double English Schools champion (over cross country and 1500 meters) before being selected in Year 10 for various national teams to race and train internationally. Securing the necessary documentation set off vast logistical hurdles that required the involvement of Watkinson, the local MP, and even the sports minister Tony Banks.
It was only in a BBC documentary last year that the story was revealed and, to Farah’s relief, the Home Office stressed that he would face no action over how he obtained his British citizenship. Watkinson says that, at the time, there was no thought of “trying to beat the system” and that it was simply a case of overcoming each step in order to help him continue his athletics journey.
His athletics feats would of course prove remarkable and, according to Brendan Foster, the organizer of Sunday’s Great North Run, Farah should go down as both the greatest British sportsman of all time and the finest ever long-distance runner.
Four Olympic and six World Championships gold medals, as well as British records at every distance from 1500m to the marathon, argues Foster, is an unanswerable haul.
And yet the complexity of Farah’s sporting legacy is summed up by the very fact that even Foster knew that he had to ask what we might now call ‘The Salazar question’ during an interview for a BBC documentary that was released this weekend entitled ‘The Last Mile’.
“In life I think we all make mistakes and you have to put your hand up when you do make a mistake,” replied Farah, when asked whether partnering with the later disgraced coach Alberto Salazar had been an error, before also saying that the American was “good for me” and that he would not change anything about his life.
Salazar, who coached Farah between 2011 and 2017, is serving a four-year ban after being sanctioned with three anti-doping offenses in 2019. He denied the allegations but later lost an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Farah has never failed a drugs test and told Foster that he “never” overstepped the mark during his career, pointing out that he left Salazar in 2017, which was the year that his former coach was first charged by US Anti-Doping.
Farah now hopes that he can use his extraordinary story to help young athletes. It certainly also stands as perhaps the ultimate example of the life-changing influence of an inspirational schoolteacher.
“It also transformed the way I thought about things,” says Watkinson. “Meeting Mo made me think that nothing is unsurmountable and you sometimes need to dig a little deeper in terms of individuals who may not be performing. He was possibly the boy who, on the face of it, was least likely to have any success in the life of that group of students. To go and do what he has done has been amazing and made me think, ‘Let’s not lower expectations or ever think we can’t do something’.”
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