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Farah battles for recognition beyond the comfort zone of Europe
By Anna Kessel
London, September 2, 2007 - Steve Cram will commentate this afternoon on a young British hope competing in his first 5,000 metres world final. But it was not so long ago that Mo Farah didn't even know who Cram was. Although naturally talented at distance running, the Somalia-born Farah had no great love for athletics and competed only under duress from his PE teacher who bribed him with football practice sessions to keep him on the athletics track.
Cram, the 1983 1500 metres world champion, first met Farah seven years ago at the world cross-country championships in Portugal. 'He goes to me, "Well done",' says Farah. 'I didn't even know who he was. My PE teacher said, "That's Steve Cram!" I said, "And?" I wasn't into running then. I went home and Googled him, that's when I realised he was the guy who got beat by the famous Somali Abdi Bile in the 1987 World Championships.'
Farah was only four at the time, but he remembers the impact Bile's victory had on his country of birth. 'I didn't even know athletics, but everybody used to talk about Bile,' he says.
This afternoon Farah will be hoping to mix it with the formidable talent of East Africa. The 24-year-old has proved himself in Europe, winning both the European cross-country championship and a 5,000m silver medal at the 2006 European Championships, but in distance running you are nowhere unless you can compete with the Africans.
Farah qualified for the final as fastest loser after finishing sixth in his heat in a time of 13min 39.13sec, faster in fact than the winner of the first heat Tariku Bekele - brother of the legendary Kenenisa - in 13:46.42. But up against the team tactics of the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans, individual talents such as Bekele, and the humidity of a Japanese summer, Farah will face a herculean challenge to make an impact. Most likely the podium will be monopolised by the East Africans, with 2005 world bronze medallist Craig Mottram of Australia hoping to intrude.
Still Farah, Britain's 2006 athlete of the year - the first long-distance man to win the accolade since Brendan Foster in 1976 - carries high hopes, having already run the second fastest 5,000m by a Briton behind David Moorcroft's 1982 world record. He is tipped to peak somewhere between the Beijing Olympics and London 2012, but wants to make a worldwide impression before then.
Impressively headstrong, Farah went against advice from Cram earlier this year when he insisted on competing in the world cross-country championships in Kenya, instead of concentrating on the European indoor championships in Birmingham. A fall in Birmingham ruined his chance of a medal but, 20 days later in soaring heat in Mombasa, Farah managed an impressive eleventh place, the highest by a European. He stands by his decision.
'Even though I got a lot of criticism I really wanted to be there. If you want to compete with the Africans then you have to mix it with them. I always wanted to race in Africa,' he says. 'The crowd were amazing. It was like running a grand prix, packed out, people shouting. And the humidity was tough. You know 40 people dropped out of my race. People went to hospital on a drip.'
When Farah arrived in Britain aged nine he did not speak a word of English.
Bullied at school, he soon learned to adapt, adopting the London idiom and more Western interests. 'From an early age I realised you have to change to the culture otherwise you will never fit in. I am lucky that I came over young. It's a lot harder when you're older.' Farah's mother, he says, still thinks of Somalia as home.
Two years ago Farah decided to move into a house in London with a group of Kenyan runners to help readjust his lifestyle away from student-union bars and partying towards a more disciplined routine. 'I did everything with them, trained, slept when they slept, ate what they ate, for 18 months. It took me a while, trying to pick up Swahili, eating ogali [maize] every night, drinking chai tea. I tried making them spag bol once but they didn't really like it.'
Living with the Kenyan runners, Farah experienced a kind of reverse culture clash. 'It was a shock,' he says. 'I'd watch MTV Base and the guys would be like "What are you doing?" They'd be watching the history channel and documentaries about animals. There was one guy I called 179 because that's the channel he always watched. Some of them were running to feed their families. That made me feel weird. My family always lived a comfortable life, I never knew anything like that.'
Farah says he feels more British than Somali and does not have strong ties with the Somali community here. 'I don't feel connected to them. If I went to Southall, they'd welcome me I'm sure, but I couldn't quite mix in. I would love to spend time there, help the younger kids and stuff. I have been asked before, but I am training all the time. I think I'd feel a bigger part of that community if I wasn't doing athletics.'
He may have spent more of his life in Britain than in Mogadishu where he was born, or Djibouti, where he grew up, but Farah's story has captured the attention of the Somali media. A visit earlier this year confirmed his celebrity status. 'The Somali BBC always interview me after my races, so people recognised me over there. The hotel owners of the places I stayed welcomed me, it was amazing. I was doing TV interviews and getting my Somali all wrong. People were interested even though I come from Britain. They said why didn't I run for Somaliland, but they were still proud of me. I couldn't live there now though, I'm used to Western life.'
With a Western lifestyle comes Western heroes. Farah looks up to Paula Radcliffe, often speaking to her before major championships, and has been paired with Steve Redgrave through a Team Visa mentoring scheme. He is still awestruck at the memory of his first meeting with the Olympic rower.
'It was unbelievable. I was there having dinner with him, he was laughing at my jokes. The man won five Olympic golds, he didn't need to feed his family, he didn't need that as motivation. It was just down to how much he wanted it.'
After a distracted start, Farah believes he has now found that desire. Of the same generation as world junior 100m champion Mark Lewis-Francis, 400m runner Tim Benjamin and javelin thrower Goldie Sayers - all of whom have struggled to perform at major events - Farah is seen as a genuine future medal contender.
Moorcroft's British 5,000m record has remained intact these past 25 years - athletics fans will hope Farah is the man to usher in a new era.
Source: The Observer