Friday, November 30, 2012
Tough road to the top: Mo Farah fought long and hard to become a gladiator of the track Photo: EDDIE MULHOLLAND
Mo Farah’s new frontier is the open road of the marathon, but the roar of the Olympic track is still inside his head.
As he prepares to re-enter the “real world” of isolation and long training runs, Britain’s double Olympic champion thinks back to London 2012 and asks: “When do you ever get a country shouting one person’s name? The whole country.”
Check the space between the ears and the noise from Farah’s 10,000 metres and 5,000m gold medal-winning runs is still audible. The din and ecstasy of those triumphs remain embedded.
There will be more track challenges for the inspirational long-distance star of the London Games but then there could be a new quest at the Rio Olympics of 2016. The king of his gruelling trade, Farah will yield no ground to the men he beat in London.
“I want to stay at the top and then hopefully step up to the longer distance. Not right now, but in my career,” he says. “I like to see myself as the best, and know I was good at track – I achieved that – now what can I do on the road? But before that I’ve got the World Championships in Russia, and I’ll work from there – work with my coach [Alberto Salazar], my agent [Ricky Simms]. That’s the big circle: race here, race there, time it right and work from there.”
The slender and gently smiling figure who emerges for our meeting is hard to place on the gladiatorial stage of the main London Olympic Stadium. But this most loved of the summer’s many champions had to fight his way up Olympus.
“In road running you can have a bad patch and survive. On the track if you have a bad patch and let go of that group, you ain’t coming back,” he says, comparing the two disciplines. “You’ve got to cover every move. It’s completely different. There’s no hiding place. Eighty thousand people will see you have a bad day.”
But 80,000 people saw Farah have a good day. Not once but twice. Only the seventh athlete to complete the 5k-10k double, the 29-year-old Farah bequeathed a gush of joyous memories, an anecdotal rise in youth participation at running clubs and a fine advertisement for Britain’s ability to help immigrants to fulfil their talent.
After his 10,000m gold, an African journalist asked him: “Why don’t you run for Somalia?” His answer, now, would silence any bigot: “As a kid growing up [in Hounslow], if my PE teacher [Alan Watkinson] hadn’t spotted me and taken me down to that club I wouldn’t be here. Everything in my life I ever did – even to read, and write – I did here. If this country hadn’t given me what I needed I wouldn’t be here. So when I wear that vest I’m very proud.”
To frame his journey from Mogadishu to the Stratford stadium, the media developed an intense interest in his background in Somalia. Only now does Farah reveal how much that curiosity upset him when he was in the middle of his Olympic quest.
“When you get into the public eye people always push. One of the things that I thought was below the belt were the stories some of them made. Particularly one paper was pushing with phone calls when I still had one race to go. The story was coming out slowly. They kept pushing and pushing, when I still had one race to go. I had to keep my feet and think – it’s nothing, don’t worry about it. It was a bit crazy to know they went all that way.
“In Somalia people are really close, and someone might be your cousin but say they’re your brother. People might be a distant cousin. But people come out of the woodwork everywhere. It was crazy. I do have a brother – my mum went back there – but it wasn’t like they were making out. You want to say your bit but you can’t.”
Among the favourites for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, Farah is taking final stock of the summer (and promoting his Mobot dance video, from which he hopes to achieve a Christmas No 1 for charity) before returning to his main base in America: “We were waiting for our twins to be born [with his wife Tania]. We planned to travel as soon as they were old enough, but it wasn’t as easy as that. We needed to get their visas sorted. I live in Portland, Oregon, a place for runners. Quiet, easy. Just simple. No one’s going to bother you.”
In his reflections Farah mixes euphoria, gratitude and a slight weariness about how fame has invaded and changed his life. The loneliness of the long-distance runner sits badly with the constant attention that comes with two Olympic golds.
“My life changed in two weeks, from walking down the street, just being Mo, having a laugh and a joke, to going down the street and everybody knowing me. Everyone doing the Mobot, having the paparazzi outside your house. Then you go down the local shop and everyone is saying well done. Our life has been completely changed, not in a bad way.
“People at the GB camp were saying, ‘Wait till you go back home, you’re life’s not going to be simple’. And I was like: what? I didn’t believe that. What people forget is: if I wasn’t doing all the training, all the miles, week in, week out, in the camps, time away from home, I wouldn’t have won those medals. So I’m glad I’m getting back into it, back into the real world.”
In that real world, Farah is now the master of a discipline that was dominated by African athletes before he broke new ground for British endurance runners. He understands the challenge. “I’ve raised the bar. I can’t go thinking I’m double Olympic champion and relax. You’ve got to think about your opposition. Other people are working as hard, and they want to beat you now because of what you have.”
Now a model of dedication, Farah left behind another, more fun-loving persona. The story of him jumping off a bridge on a night out is often told. “If I hadn’t changed years ago I wouldn’t have made it as an athlete. I used to enjoy going out with my friends and having a laugh. I changed from that.”
He managed to make that alteration without switching off the light that seems to glow inside him. I show him the picture of Usain Bolt performing the Mobot at the London stadium while Farah copies Bolt’s lightning bolt routine. His eyes glow. “That was the best one. Usain Bolt doing the Mobot. You can’t get any better than that, can you. He just came up with it. That was the moment. Also, him doing it as he was breaking the world record.
“Also David Beckham. Boris [Johnson]. Seb Coe. You see them watching you. And meeting Pele. Not many people get to meet Pele. Pele’s a legend. And going down to No 10 – Cameron.” Farah says he thought in Downing Street: “What am I doing here?”
As the races were so operatic, and the recollections so sharp, it seemed a good idea to ask him to recount both Olympic events, starting with his 5,000m heat, in which he looked physically and emotionally drained: “I did struggle in that heat and it did show, because I was tired. I wasn’t resting enough. I came out and spent a bit of time with people, everyone saying, ‘well done.’ You go to the dinner hall and everyone’s talking to you. That takes energy.
“My agent told me, ‘Go home, you need rest, you look tired’. So I went back and one night just stayed in my room. Somebody went down to get my dinner. And I didn’t come out.”
But back to the happy stuff. First, the 10,000m final: “I remember walking through the tunnel and people were just shouting out my name. I was like, ‘wow’. That was before I’d even started. My aim was to work as a team with Galen Rupp, my training partner. We do everything together, playing on the PlayStation, eating. We knew we were capable if it came down to a rat race of finishing first and second.
“But it’s one thing knowing that and another knowing you have to react if anything does happen. The race started and I went to the back straight away. I thought — it’s 25 laps, I don’t need to waste any energy, just go to race and be aware of who’s who: the Ethiopian guys and Kenenisa Bekele, who was the ultimate one. If anyone was going to beat me that night it would have been him. I knew that if I didn’t go when I needed to go my training partner would have beaten me himself. It was only those two, really, and a few of the Kenyans.
“I was working my way through, and with 10 laps to go realised I needed to be closer to the front. Then with five laps to go I thought, ‘I need to position myself now to run at pace’. Galen tried to go with it – and I thought, slow down, you don’t need to go with it; then we found ourselves at the front, and I had to go, off the bell.
“The stadium was getting louder and louder. It was just incredible. Everyone cheering for you. As I crossed the line I knew I’d won but I automatically looked across to see who came second and it was my training partner, Galen. It was a good victory, but it was about having something left and being smart in the race — not going with the surges, because there’s a lot of surging.”
So then came the mini-crisis of the 5,00m heat, but redemption, in the final. He says: “Pretty similar. I had that confidence. I was pretty pumped up. I went though the race with everyone shouting ‘Mo’ and the British flag and going crazy. I looked across and saw so many people. It was louder than the 10,000. It was like being at a football match where everyone is shouting.
“I was smacking my legs and head to get myself psyched up, thinking, I can beat these guys, but if these guys are smart they will try to do something crazy, because I wasn’t the fastest going into that race. Four guys had run faster than me. And there were three Ethiopians in there. My coach told me and Galen to work as a team, and if it comes down to a last-lap race it’s every man for himself.
“With three laps to go we went to the front to block the other guys and stay there together. I kept winding, kept winding. It was just loud, loud. At that point we went a little bit faster, Galen dropped back a bit, Dejen Gebremeskel went to the front, I sat behind him, and with 600m to go came to his shoulder thinking, I’m still there, I’m still there – as long as we get to 400m like this, I can win this race.
“The other Kenyan guy [Thomas Longosiwa] tried to come past me on the outside and I thought, ‘No, you ain’t coming in’. As soon as you let someone past you on the outside they blocked you in. I’m not going to get blocked in. From the crowd I knew someone was coming. From the final turn I tried to run like a sprinter. You use your arms, make sure you haven’t got a long stride. That’s one thing Alberto told us, because you come off the ground quicker. Then crossing the line – wow, I’ve done it again. I think I just started smacking my head.”
Disbelief was also apt when nature graced him with twins days after his second victory. Fatherhood has bolstered his defences: “It helps you, because I’m just a normal guy. When I get home I want to have a normal life, go to Tesco, watch TV, have a cup of tea, get angry about something.
"Having a family, for me, has definitely settled me down, because as a kid I was very hyper, always having a laugh. Training, running and getting married settled me down. Now I’m driving through the country thinking: this is beautiful. I used to think — why would anyone live here?”
So now Mo Farah, who grew up under the Heathrow flight path, is learning to love flowers? He laughs at that: “No, not unless I’m in trouble.”