Last month, Mo Farah – usually described, since he won gold in the 5000m and 10,000m at both the London and Rio Olympics, as Britain’s greatest athlete – ran into Hong Kong for a few days.
He’d been invited by Credit Suisse to appear at the 20th anniversary of its Asian Investment Conference and, as part of the celebrations, participants were given the opportunity to accompany him on a morning jog. And so early one morning, a small group of people began to gather on Bowen Road.
Those taking part weren’t just random sprinters. Credit Suisse didn’t want a two-speed race and when the invitation went out, it had to be serious runners who applied. “Serious” in this case, explained one of the Credit Suisse organisers, meant someone who could run a mile in 4½ minutes. Or maybe it was a kilometre in 4½ minutes. A dawn discussion ensued among a few statistically wobbly non-runners. (It was a kilometre.) Whatever the definition, Mo, as everyone referred to him, was going to be quicker.
The sky lightened, revealing groups of senior citizens contorting themselves into various shapes as they exercised under the trees.
Soon, a convoy of three enormous cars drew up and out of one hopped a slight man in a tracksuit clutching a cup of coffee. The physical minuteness of Farah is a shock. It seems biologically impossible that those teeny-weeny legs could propel him 10m down the road without snapping.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, and beamed. The Mo-grin is in inverse proportion to the Mo-stature; you feel you could warm your hands on it for the rest of the newly arrived day. The 20 runners pressed forward. Small talk ensued.
There were a few advisory words about the run (“We don’t want to scare people or run people over”) plus a warning that a magazine was taking photos, so if anyone had issues with their image appearing in the media, could they please let the organisers know. Farah gave a little cry of horror and covered his face with his hands. Everyone laughed.
Then they set off in a posse, Farah looking like a tiny dancer who’d been delicately eased into a hefty corps de ballet. Other early-morning runners glanced not at the individual but at the purposeful pack. They were gone for about half an hour: 3km to the end of Bowen Road, 3km back.
Apart from the birds, it was very quiet in their absence. A man nearby did some intricate tai chi.
On their return, Farah was still grinning. He wasn’t in the lead; in such corporate-paid situations, presumably it’s polite to let others do the tape-breasting. Much selfie-taking and T-shirt-signing ensued. That was probably the real energy-sapper but his smile never faltered
After a while, he began running again. Every day, he runs about 20km in the morning and 10km in the afternoon. While the others were heading home for showers, his real workout was just beginning. Not being familiar with Hong Kong, he’d no idea where he was going. Someone said they’d show him the way; and off he went.
Wasn’t he worried about getting lost? “Nah,” says Farah, easily. “I had my GPS.”
He’s in a function room at the Island Shangri-La, where he’s just taken part in a lunchtime “conversation” in front of a packed ballroom.
Farah, now clad in a pale blue suit, is skinnily perched on an armchair. He’s received many genetic blessings in the limb department but, weirdly, being able to cross his legs is not one of them. (He says it’s always been too painful, even as a child.)
Round his neck rests a silver chain he bought in Ethiopia in 2008. On his wrist is a beaded band that carries the word Mo, bookended by two Union flags, which he had made in Kenya. These are countries in which he trains. Technically, since 2011, he lives in Portland, Oregon, in the United States, but he spends about half the year in other regions, usually at high altitude, where the lack of oxygen boosts the production of red blood cells.
He was in Ethiopia in January, getting his cell count up for a Birmingham track event in February, when US President Donald Trump issued his exclusion order against nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Somalia, where Farah was born in 1983. Although he’s a British passport holder, he was seriously concerned he wouldn’t make it through US Immigration and back to Oregon.
“I spoke to the kids,” he says. He has four – Rhianna, now 11, four-year-old twins Aisha and Amani, and Hussein, 18 months – all resident in Oregon with their mother, Tania. Leaving aside Hussein, what could he possibly have said to them? “Not very much, to be honest. And it got changed within 24 hours.” (The following day, a federal judge temporarily barred any deportation orders.)
At the time, he’d responded on his Facebook page: “On 1st January this year, Her Majesty The Queen made me a Knight of the Realm. On 27th January, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien.
” Those are two great sentences and I doubt very much Farah wrote them. Having read some of his previous interviews, watched him on various chat shows, studied his autobiography, heard him speak and spent a pleasant hour with him, I can say with some confidence that he’s a lovely guy but he’s definitely not sitting at home crafting little aperçus for his followers.
(When he won gold twice at the 2012 London Olympics, two postboxes in London boroughs where he grew up were painted gold. I asked Farah if he’s a big letter writer. His wide-eyed look of horror, his cry of denial and the shared explosion of laughter will remain a fond interviewing memory for a long time.)
Still, British passport or not, he wasn’t confident about his return.
“I was nervous actually going back. Normally, they give me a little bit of a hard time. But you’ve got to let people do their job, haven’t you? My name” – Mohamed Muktar Jama Farah – “and place of birth” – Mogadishu – “do ring a lot of bells.”
Then he adds, “If it’s the best for our country, I’m fine with it,” which suggests we’re not only talking about hassle at US Immigration. That sort of mildly accommodating line is one he uses quite often; after all, he’s a man who’s spent his life fitting in.
He was eight when he moved to England. Although he was born in Somalia – and is always referred to with reference to that country – the family lived in Somaliland, which used to be a British colony and claims autonomy from the rest of Somalia. The fallout has been extremely violent.
Farah missed that political trauma because when he was about four, his family moved to neighbouring Djibouti.
“People have described my childhood as poverty-stricken and surrounded by bullets and bombs,” he says, through the medium of ghostwriter TJ Andrews, in his 2013 autobiography Twin Ambitions. “That’s not really true . . . there were no soldiers in the streets, no bombs going off.”
Later on, he says about Djibouti, “Life wasn’t a walk in the park, but it wasn’t the struggle that some people have made out.”
The real difficulties came in London, not Africa. Twin Ambitions, which has a photo of an unsmiling Farah on its cover, is an excellent title for his life story.
To athletics fans, it signals the double golds of 10,000m and 5000m, and the double double golds of London and Rio, and there’s certainly an awful lot about running, and training, in the book.
But to anyone else, it’s about Hassan, the twin who beat Mo into the world by a few minutes and from whom he was separated for 12 years when they were eight.
If a GPS could chart the stress fracture through Farah’s life, that’s where it would locate the starting point: the moment in 1991 when a plane took off from Africa, bound for Heathrow, leaving a sick Hassan behind. About two hours into the Ethiopian Airlines flight, an alarm began shrieking, the screaming passengers had to put on oxygen masks, there was an emergency landing.
Continued next week
Five days later, he arrived in London. He couldn’t speak a word of English.
When his father went back to collect Hassan a few months later, he couldn’t find him. The extended family had moved, communications were poor. As a result of that failure, so Farah believes, his parents’ marriage fell apart. His three other brothers moved to Brighton with his father, his mother moved back to Africa to find Hassan and he was brought up by an aunt.
No wonder there’s been a constant yearning for family, for attachments. “How do we get to the deep, deep layers?” he asks at one point and although we’re talking about the effects of cryotherapy in Oregon, when he briefly freezes his body to minus 170 degrees Celsius, to help it recover from invisible damage, you have to wonder about the unseen knock-on effects of that early schism. The queen did, indeed, make him Sir Mo in her 2017 New Year’s honours list; but he was an alien in Britain, sheared off from his twin, when Trump was still a relatively unknown property developer.
How’s Mr Watkinson? Farah grins.
“Fine. He still goes on about it.” Alan Watkinson was the teacher who set the ball rolling – or rather didn’t, because while Farah longed to be a football player, Watkinson saw his track potential. He was the essential authority figure (he would be best man at Farah’s wedding) and one of his favourite stories is about the day everyone was doing endurance laps. The watching head of PE summoned the class, made them take out their timetable diaries and announced: “Mo is going to sign them. Keep them safe because they’ll be worth something in the future.”
Farah’s been signing, and now selfie-ing, ever since. Doesn’t he get sick of it? “I don’t mind,” he says. “I’m a massive Arsenal fan, I remember I’d wait around at Highbury, then the Emirates [when Arsenal moved stadium] to see them.” Who? He reels off immediate names: “Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Lee Dixon. You’d wait around, there might be a chance.”
The hard part is people not understanding how you feel and what you do. And thinking you’re not a normal person.
Mo Farah on fame
And did he meet them? Farah pulls a complex expression that somehow combines regret and pride; his face is, almost, as famously mobile as the rest of him.
“No. I never saw them until I made it as a runner.”
As he tells it, that seems to be his benchmark of success. Forget the medals: later, when he’s expressing gratitude for the unexpected blessings that have come his way, he says, “Being at the Emirates. Being able to drive in there when you haven’t even got a pass.
What more can you ask of life?” Some part of him still dreams of having been a footballer, a twin ambition; and some part of him is still that small lad – waiting, waiting, waiting . . .
Why fly to Hong Kong, breaking up his crucial training routine for the world championships in London this August? Money, obviously, though he doesn’t say that and he doesn’t strike me as wildly conspicuous in his spending; when I ask him about his natty blue shoes, he has no idea where they’ve come from and says Tania bought them..
“It’s what comes with it,” he says of these corporate interludes in his life. “You have to do it along the way.” How did he sleep last night, before this morning’s run? “I was a bit jet-lagged. I was up at 4am.” Running? “Nah. Thought I’d save myself.”
Sounds tedious, I say. And, suddenly, his face looks startlingly serious for a moment. “The hard part is people not understanding how you feel and what you do. And thinking you’re not a normal person. I have the same feelings as you. They see you as . . . not normal.”
When did that begin? “2012. Maybe a little bit in 2011. But in 2012, I couldn’t go back to being me, to being cheeky. That’s a big change. Would you change anything to achieve what you can achieve?”
It’s so unusual to be asked this sort of question – frankly, any sort of question – by a celebrity, that it’s my turn to hesitate. When I ask him if he’s seen The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), he says no in a voice that suggests he wants to say yes. He’s a classic people-pleaser, as anyone who saw him, for example, on The Graham Norton Show with Gwyneth Paltrow may remember. (Although he’d never heard of her, or the Iron Man films, he conveyed enthusiasm for both.)
But I’m thinking more of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’s Wife. He’s away six months of the year; Tania’s left in Oregon with the children, and Rhianna’s getting an American accent. Still, the situation’s not exactly on a par with Hassan – the twins, reunited aged 20, can only converse in Somali. Hassan, a car mechanic and father of eight, really is a family man. Few people witness the parallel universe of their what-if? alternative lives (the Sliding Doors concept of one of Paltrow’s films). Mo can measure the long distance he’s travelled in a fraternal heartbeat.
“You have to accept what you have to do,” he says of his life’s peculiarities. “What I don’t accept is . . . certain things.”
This, I take it, is a coded reference to the February story in The Sunday Times claiming that his coach, Alberto Salazar, head of the Nike Oregon Project, and the reason the Farah family is in Portland, has broken anti-doping rules. He refers all queries on that matter to the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger statement, carefully chiselled on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. (“I am a clean athlete who has never broken the rules.”)
We go outside for photographs. He performs his signature Mobot gesture.
The Mobot was cooked up on a pre-2012-Olympics British television show at the suggestion of James Corden, now better known for his Carpool Karaoke. I’d thought he might demur: he does it at least once a day when he’s in Britain and they’re also fairly keen on it in Ethiopia and Somalia. No one knows him in the US, of course, which may be part of the attraction.
But he mugs, like a champion, for the camera. Earlier, just after he’d told me Irish people are similar to Somalis (“Similar principles, similar upbringing”), I’d asked him when he realised the power of charm.
“If it wasn’t for sport, and being able to interact with other people,” he’d replied earnestly and stopped, just for a few seconds, seeing the less golden, less sunny, routes he might have gone, unsmilingly. “Then people see you differently. You’re not just a regular kid.”