Mo Farah has run into history. Black history? British history? Athletics history? Let’s just say – he has run into history. Clayton Goodwin reports on how one of Africa’s sons is mesmerising his adoptive country – Great Britain.
By his achievements in winning both the 10,000 metres and 5,000 metres in the recent World Athletics Championships at Moscow, to go with his triumphs at the same distances in the London Olympics a year ago, the Somalia-born long-distance runner, Mo Farah, has become the greatest African/British athlete ever. You don’t have to take my word for it. (Lord) Sebastian Coe, the supremo of British athletics and, himself, a former multi-medallist, has said as much, and he should know.
That doesn’t mean that Farah’s feat on the track is unique. He has succeeded only in equalling, not surpassing, the achievement of the now legendary Kenenisa Bekele and is still some way off attaining the quickest speed for either distance. Yet Mo has won, too, on possibly an even harder track by catching the affections of the British public (and, more surprisingly, of the British press). The United Kingdom welcomes sportsmen/women born overseas – the England cricket team would be woefully weak without its import of players born in South Africa, India and elsewhere – but usually they do not take them to their hearts as one of themselves and they are often resented. Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Bugner, who was born in Hungary, and the recently-deceased cricketer Tony Greig of South Africa found that to their cost and, feeling rejected, both ended up moving to Australia.
Nor do the British take kindly to their sports heroes living abroad. Yet Farah, with his wife Tania and his step-daughter Rihanna, who feature prominently in his post-race pictorials, spends most of time at his training-post in Oregon, USA. Why then has Mo “bucked the trend” where others have failed – and at a time when the country has such a wide range of international champions from which to choose on whom to bestow their affection? Why, too, has a practising Muslim succeeded when so much of the media, and, sad to say, a good number of the public, have nothing but bad things to say about people of his religion – and at a time when the stories of his home country, and its neighbours, are otherwise so negative?
For a start, he retains much of his boyish charm, and who cannot fall in love with that schoolboy-like Mobot pose.
Paula Radford, the former women’s long-distance champion, said that the 30 year-old still reminds her of that same young man she was asked to mentor when he first came into the national team. Furthermore the “family poses”, which are no doubt genuine, evoke just the right cosy image to counter the seamier stories which beset athletics at the moment. Can anybody really visualise Mo “doing drugs” – whether inadvertently or not? He projects the values which the British public like to think that they, themselves, possess.
The British, too, respect an underdog who comes out on top. Here the adverse circumstances of his early years have come to his advantage. It is the stuff of which myths and media-stories are made. Somehow his present adulators cannot understand that it was themselves, or people very like them, who created the social conditions which kept him down in the first place. Surely, in whatever community we were raised, we all know of students who were belittled by the teachers but who those same teachers wanted to claim the praise for when they did succeed. On top of all that, Farah has a “nice smile”.
Farah is also of course acclaimed as being the best African/British athlete ever – because he really is the best African/British athlete ever. That is indeed a powerful statement as the country has produced a lineage of great champions going back to and beyond folk-hero Roger Bannister (including Coe himself). None have succeeded so completely and consistently at the highest level of the most arduous disciplines.
I have always thought it to be unfair that Usain Bolt should get such adulation for a sprint which lasts less than ten seconds while the likes of Farah, and Bekele, grind out so many minutes on the track.
We cannot talk about Moscow without paying tribute to Christine Ohuruogu. The decision to feature her prominently in the publicity for the London Olympic Games last year was criticised by many commentators, including, I must admit, myself. It is true that she has not always lived up to expectations and some of her performances were woefully weak. Why did the selectors continue to favour her? we asked. Fortunately, as at the time of writing I am recuperating indoors at home from illness, I have no need to wear a hat – otherwise I would be forced to eat it! Christine’s comeback was signalled by an outstanding run in the pouring rain at Crystal Palace in London last summer.