Evening Standard

Perfect vision: Mo Farah, during winter training at high altitude in Iten, Kenya, now knows what sacrifices have to be made to be a success. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Disney World fulfils many children’s fantasies but for Mo Farah it gave him a new dream and one which he went on to realise far beyond expectation.

Farah can rightly claim to have resurrected British endurance running and last July became the country’s first European 10,000metres champion.

But, as a child, Farah longed to play on the wing for Arsenal until UK Athletics sent the 15-year-old and several other young prospects to Orlando for a two-week training camp.

Their stay included a visit to Disney World and that transformed his life.

“All I wanted to do was play football,” he recalls. “I had no thought of becoming an athlete but Orlando was just amazing. We went to Disney World, went on all the rides and when I came back I wanted to be an athlete. Disney World changed me.”

Farah, now 27, laughs as he thinks about the Disney game changer. “I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was them glasses you wear for the 3D stuff.”

What helped was that in the Florida sunshine the teenager formed a bond with his fellow athletes.

He says: “I enjoyed hanging around the athletes and training.”

Furthermore, he knew he was not good enough to be a footballer and there was no way he could emulate his hero Dennis Bergkamp, then wearing the colours of his beloved Arsenal. “I did not have the skills. I liked running and crossing the ball but I was no Theo Walcott. I am glad I took to running.”

While the American trip made him focus on athletics, Farah says it was actually his school, and one teacher in particular, that got him into the sport.

For a year earlier, Alan Watkinson, a PE tutor at Feltham Community College, spotted the boy’s talent.

“If it wasn’t for my school coach I don’t think I’d be running at all,” says Farah. “I would be still trying to play football and would have gone nowhere. He said I was good at running and he was going to pick me for the running team if I came to the trials. I came to trials and I won it and then he put me in the cross country team against other schools.”

The decision to take up atheltics has paid off handsomely with successes including gold over 3000m at the 2009 European Indoor Championships, a title he will defend this Saturday in Paris.

After those championships, the Londoner will relocate to Portland, Oregon, where he will be coached by Alberto Salazar, who has transformed American endurance running.

The move means severing ties with long-term trainer Alan Storey. Farah says: “Alan has been a great coach but to move forward that little bit I believe Alberto can make that difference.”

The difference could mean a medal at next year’s London Olympics but it was a decision seven years ago that had a massive impact on his career. It came after Farah, brought to this country from Somalia at the age of eight, got back to his African roots via Richmond Park.

“I was at St Mary’s College and while I ran three times a week I did the normal things you do, going out with your friends, going to the cinema,” he recalls. “I did my hill sessions on Saturday at Richmond Park and I used to see these Kenyan athletes running around the park. I knew the Kenyans were the best. I was kind of running alright but I wasn’t anywhere near the Kenyans.

“My agent, Rick Simms, said to me: ‘On your days off, live with the Kenyans’. “At the time I was looking to rent. The Kenyans had a spare room. I decided to live in that spare room and see what they do every day. They would just eat, sleep, train and do nothing else. I’d be out with my mates, coming back at half eleven or twelve.

“The Kenyans were in bed by eight o’clock. I said to myself if I am ever going to have any chance of being successful, you’ve got to do what they do. Never having been an early riser I started getting up at six o’clock and doing runs with them.”

Farah may have shared their African origins but he could see his western upbringing had made him different. “These guys have had it so tough. I was born in Africa and left at eight but I didn’t get any running there. We lived a normal life in London. For these guys life is so hard. If they don’t make it they don’t make enough to feed their family. That’s what motivates them.”

This African motivation was reinforced when Farah was selected for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and had the chance to train with Craig Mottram. The Australian copied the Kenyans’ preparations, leaving Farah in no doubt as to what to do. He says: “From that moment I changed.

“I knew if I ever wanted to beat these guys or even have a chance against them I had to do what they were doing.”

The results were not long in coming. In July 2006 Farah clocked 13min 09.40sec in 5000m, the second fastest time by a Briton after David Moorcroft and one that began his assault on Moorcroft’s 28-year old record.

Last August he became the first Briton to run the distance under 13 minutes taking almost three seconds off Moorcroft’s landmark, coming home in 12min 57.94sec.

“Over the years I had been trying to get close, running 13:09, 13:08, 13:07, 13:05. Then finally to break it was a really great feeling. That was a world record at that time.”

Such dedication is not without pain for those close to him. Last year, having got married to his childhood sweetheart Tania Neil, the couple went on a honeymoon to Zanzibar and Tanzania. But on the way home they were stranded at Nairobi airport.

He says: “My aim was to come back home and go to the US to train, but there was no flight. We were stuck at the airport for about five days. I missed training and we didn’t know when we are going to get a flight. My wife said to me: ‘Look, you need to start training’. I said: ‘I can’t leave you’. But I ended up leaving her there in Nairobi and going up to the mountain while she got a flight back home a day later.”

Farah readily acknowledges that it helped that his father, who was settled here, brought him from war-torn Somalia, where he was living with his mother when he was young.

“At that age it wasn’t difficult. If I had come over at the age of 15 or 16 it would have been a lot more complicated.”

His English was limited to a couple of expressions – “excuse me”, “where’s the toilet” – but he settled easily. “The kids did not give me a hard time. It helped that I had my cousin in the same class as me, he was born here.”

When it came to athletics, Farah emerged at a time when Britain was in a fallow period after the golden age of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. He has watched the 1500m race of the 1980 Moscow Olympics when Coe beat Ovett many times. “In that era, Coe, Ovett, Cram were all pushing one another. I don’t think there are many guys who can push one another and do that.

“You have Chris Thompson, he came second in the 10,000m [at last year’s European Championships]. You’ve got Michael Rimmer. You’ve got a lot of youngsters coming through. But it is not the Coe, Ovett, Cram era where they were beating each other every week.”

Having won medals in the European arena, Farah’s motivation is clear. “I want to get medals on the world stage or get closer to the world.”

And the world could not get closer than 2012 in London. Talk of that brings back Beijing where he failed to make the 5000m final after finishing sixth in his heat in a time of 13min 50.95 sec.

“That was my hardest defeat. Everybody was expecting me to get to finals. I remember when I came back from Beijing I was so down my wife asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ She didn’t quite understand what was happening. There is a lot of stuff going through in your mind. In football there are 11 men. If one person has a bad game it might not show because you’ve got 10 men to cover you. You might not be judged. But you run around that track and you can’t hide.”

Farah feels he has learned from Beijing and while he will make no forecasts for London he says defeats have made him stronger.

“I hate losing but you have to take defeat as a sportsman. You have to analyse where you lost it. Something I will never forget is coming second in the European Championship four years ago. I almost run exactly the same as what I run last year in Barcelona; same guys, same position. But in Barcelona I was a lot stronger mentally.”

It is this that has taken Farah to America and already he is looking beyond next year’s Games.

Farah says: “After that I would like to step up to the longer distance, go on to marathon and London marathon is one of the biggest marathons in the world.”


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