The Man Who Can Unite the Nation: We Spoke to Mo Farah Ahead of Rio 2016
With Rio 2016 only a few weeks away, we spoke to Mo Farah about dealing with pressure, recapturing the spirit of London 2012 and becoming one of the most recognisable athletes in world sport.
EPA Images/Jean-Cristophe Bott
"Is that Rooney? I can't see whose name that is."
Mo Farah and I are standing side by side in a meeting room just off London's Oxford St, inspecting a signed Manchester United shirt that's been framed on the wall. "Can you see who's name that is?!" He asks me. "No, not really." I reply, unhelpfully, "The writing's a bit faded. Could be Rooney though?"
It's not your standard way to start an interview, but it hasn't been a standard couple of days for Farah. On Saturday he ran the fastest 5000m of 2016 in front of a packed Olympic Stadium for the Anniversary Games, and today he's just stepped out of a car in front of around three hundred people, led a parade with Nike up Regent Street, and then had a chat with a cast member from Game of Thrones in front of a cheering crowd. What's going on? Is this is a normal weekend? If so I might need to re-evaluate what I do with my free time.
"It's been pretty mad!" Farah tells me with a smile. "But yesterday was amazing, I loved it. The crowd got behind me and it was an amazing race."
Mad and amazing are fair words to describe the past few years for Mo Farah. Four years ago at the London Olympics, he won gold in both the 5000m and 10,000m, thus cementing himself as one of Britain's greatest athletes and one of the most recognisable faces in the country. As well as being the face of a glorious summer of sport, Somalia-born Farah has also become something of a poster boy for immigration, having moved to England from Africa when he was eight years of age. It's fair to say that he's lived an eventful life so far.
So now that the anniversary games is over, it's full steam ahead to the world's biggest sporting event. "I'm excited!" He says, showing his trademark smile, "I'm in a good place and training has been going really well. There've been a couple of niggles along the way, you know, just standard aches and pains, but yeah I'm in a great place and so excited for Rio." "And you're confident?" I ask him. "Yeah I'm confident. The crowd gave me a massive boost yesterday. I'm really looking forward to it."
When the London Olympics took place four years ago, it produced a profound sense of unity across the UK. Even sporting sceptics found themselves glued to the TV, cheering on future household names. Having so many people wishing you well seems like a good thing, but it can also be a burden.
"It actually wasn't easy man," he says. "To have the whole country behind me, there was so much pressure. But at the same time, when I walked onto the track I used it as a positive thing. I just told myself that so many people are here because they want me to do well, and it was nice to just go out there and do it for my country."
"And did your life just completely change after that, then?" I ask. "Yep, overnight," he laughs. "Bang, I was a household name. I finished that Olympics and then I couldn't even walk down the street. I knew it would never be the same again. It felt weird at the time, but I got used to it. It's a nice thing really, because most of the people coming up to you just want to congratulate you."
When Farah emigrated from Africa to the UK aged eight, he couldn't speak a word of English and was thrown into a totally new world. It must be bizarre thinking back on how much has changed since he moved here. He went from being a young immigrant in a foreign land, to being one of the most recognisable faces in the country.
"I could never have imagined this, to be an Olympic champion and to be who I've become. I remember coming over here and being so excited with how different everything was. In Africa I lived in Djibouti, and that couldn't be more different to here."
Immigration plays a common theme in Farah's life, as in 2011 he upped sticks to Portland, Oregon with his wife and four children. After binge-watching Portlandia on Netflix recently, I tell him it's a place I'd love to visit. "It's a really great city. If you love the green scenery and the rain, you'd love it there. You should definitely try to visit. It's a bit of a hippy place. It's similar to London in ways, but more like when you leave the centre a bit and head to somewhere like Richmond."
I ask him how often he gets recognised over there and he holds up his hand to form a zero. "Never. It never happens! I can go out running, have a relax, take the kids down to Starbucks, go for lunch, and just enjoy my time like everyone else there. It's a little bit harder to do that over here. You can do it, but it's not easy." "Does everyone just want a race?" I ask. He smiles, "Nah, everyone just wants a selfie."
So what's the secret? What does the average, lazy guy like myself have to do become the next Mo Farah? "You just have to enjoy it mate! You have to try to do more mileage each time you run, because after each run you'll get stronger. The fitter you get, the easier it will become. And always concentrate on what to do in the race: what time it is, what race it is, how fast you should be running. It's always different, but it's important to concentrate."
Obviously any Olympic champion is going to have a pretty strict and intense training regime, but it's still hard to comprehend just how much Farah trains. "I run at least 20 miles every day, in fact I just went on a 20 mile run this morning." Bear in mind it's currently 1PM and he started his parade up Regent Street at 11AM. "That's madness!" I let out. He laughs, "It's got to be done though! And I'm used to it."
Like many athletes, his natural talent started to kick in during secondary school. It was a talent that his PE teacher couldn't help but notice. "I was winning at school and always finishing first and second at various events, and my PE teacher said, 'You know, you're really good at this. You need to keep going'. I realised that I had a talent, but I also knew that I had to do a lot to keep it going."
It wasn't just running that Farah excelled in; he was also a talented footballer that dreamt of playing for Arsenal. "Yeah I was good, well that's what I told myself!" he laughs. "I've always loved football. I played for a club, but I was never going to get in the national team or play for the county. I got to the age of 16 and I had to choose between football and running, and obviously I'm very glad I chose running."
And you never looked back? I ask, "Nope, I've never looked back since. You know when you just get the taste for something? It's like a job, innit? You get a promotion, you get higher up, and you enjoy it more and get a taste for it because you're clearly good at it."
The passion for running is something that's never going to fade for Farah, but taking part in huge publicity events like today and forcing himself to be a personality in front of a crowd must take some getting used to, especially as his mind is set on one of the biggest sporting moments of his life: the Rio Olympics, which is just two weeks away. "I don't it mind at all," he says in a carefree way, "because I love the people and I love the crowd. I just have to get my training done first. The press and events are just part of it. You get used to it all very fast."
So will the nation once again be united this summer in forming a large M over their heads when Farah wins? He hopes so. "Mate, everyone was doing the Mobot! It was just great to see so many people associate something with me. And no, I'm not bored of it... yet."