We caught up with four-time Olympic champion Sir Mo Farah at a venue that played an important part in his career – St Mary’s University, London. Sir Mo attended St Mary’s back in 2001, after being awarded a scholarship to the Endurance Performance and Coaching Centre. 16 years later, he was back to celebrate the naming of the University’s athletics track in his honour – a recognition of the star’s achievements, which include winning four double titles at successive Olympic and World Championships, as well as an unbeaten record on the track at major international championships since 2011.
Named by one commentator as “the greatest British sportsman of all time”, the past 12 months have been particularly momentous for Sir Mo – from cementing legendary status with two more gold medals in Rio, to speaking out against the President of the United States. We spoke to him about his career, speaking up for what he believes in, and his experiences with a certain Mr. Trump…
Is it good to be back at your old university?
It’s great to be back! It’s a huge honour to have the track named after me – especially because it’s somewhere I put in so many hundreds of miles of training over the years! I used the facilities at St. Mary’s for ten years and have lots of good memories from my time here. Living in Oregon full time now, I do miss the UK and always love coming back to see familiar faces.
The 2016 Olympics was huge for you – has it all sunk in yet?
To have all your hard work pay off on the world stage is incredibly rewarding. In the run up to Rio I’d spent so much time away from my family, putting my body through hell every week just to get myself in the best physical and mental condition for the Games.
For all that sacrifice to pay off was fantastic and it was great to bring home more golds for Team GB! I performed when it counted and had that bit of luck you need. But I’m very ambitious and I don’t spend too much time looking back. Rio is finished and there’s lots more to come over the next few months and years.
Is there a single moment from the Rio Olympics that sticks out to you?
When I went down in the 10k. That was honestly one of the hardest races of my life, and after I was tripped and hit the floor I thought it was all over. But I jumped up and dusted myself off – I had worked too hard to let it go like that, and luckily it happened early in the race so I had enough time to regain my composure and get back on track.
Plus, I had promised my daughter Rhianna that I would win a gold medal for her so there was no way I could disappoint her! When I finally crossed the line, I was shattered – emotionally and physically exhausted.
Moving away from racing, in January we saw you speak out against President Trump’s proposed travel ban – dubbed by some a “Muslim ban” – which threatened to prevent you returning to your family in the US. Tell us about that.
When I first heard about the policy I was furious. I was being told that I was not welcome in a country I had lived in for six years – where I pay taxes – a place my children call home. Even though I’m British, because I was born in Somalia there was a real chance I would’ve been locked out of the US. Nobody really knew what was going on.
But this wasn’t just about me. The whole thing was so unfair and didn’t make any sense. You can’t just ban people because of their religion – it’s totally ignorant and prejudiced. I wasn’t having any of it.
Is that why you decided to speak out?
I knew I had to say something, especially because so many of the people affected would struggle to be heard by the people who matter. My success has given me an international profile and I felt the responsibility to speak up for everyone else. I said to my management team that I wanted to release a statement about what was happening, so we worked together on a response that summed up how I felt. I was angry. I wanted people to know that it was an unfair policy built on ignorance and prejudice. Building walls between nations and blaming people because of the colour of their skin, or the religion they follow, is just wrong.
I’m not a politician and my place is on the track, but that was a moment I needed to speak up. At a certain level in sport, you’re always under the spotlight. That comes with positives and negatives of course, but it means that I have a responsibility to my kids, and to all my fans, to be a role model. To do the right thing. Speaking out was the right thing.
Your intervention was widely covered by the world’s media – what did you think of the response?
The response was huge and it was fantastic to get so much support. My statement on Facebook was liked by over a quarter of a million people, and it seemed like every newspaper covered the story! I’m just glad I could reach so many people and lend my voice to all the millions who felt attacked by the ban – to let them know that they weren’t alone. If my actions played a big part in helping fight the ban then that makes me proud.
Why social media?
I love social media, as well as all new technology! Social media gives me the chance to speak to millions of people all over the world at the press of a button. Instagram and Snapchat are my current favourites, and usually I keep my posts silly and fun! But for something serious like this I had to express my views in writing, to get every word right, and that meant Facebook.
“I am an immigrant who became a Knight – it’s crazy!”
Social media is a tool, and like any tool it can be used for good or for bad. Facebook and Twitter help people to be heard and feel represented. They’re not perfect – I know first-hand that it can be difficult to drown out people who just want to criticise and be negative. But every high-profile person now knows that’s part of the deal with being famous. In this case, I could use social media to make a positive difference.
Plus, I was in a training camp in the middle of Ethiopia at the time so it wouldn’t exactly have been easy to do interviews!
Were you happy when you found out the ban wouldn’t apply to you?
Of course. As a father and a husband it was important to confirm that I would be allowed home. The support I got from people all over the world was fantastic and I think it made a big difference. But as I said at the time, this was a bad policy based on religious discrimination. Just because I’m not personally affected doesn’t change that. The actions we’ve seen from US judges and all the protests just show that Trump got this badly wrong.
Do you ever worry about something similar happening in the UK?
I really hope not and I don’t see it happening. I couldn’t speak a word of English when I first moved to Britain at the age of eight, but the country accepted me for who I am and gave me and my family a safe, happy place to grow up. More than that, I was given the support to follow my dreams of running professionally. My story would not have been possible were it not for the compassion that I was shown. I am an immigrant who became a Knight – it’s crazy!
But just think about the potential of all those people that Trump’s ban would turn away from the US. Think about all the amazing things they could do for the country. It would be a terrible waste.
Moving away from politics, what’s next for you?
Another busy season! The success I had last year was great – especially those Olympic golds – but after a win I’m immediately focused on the next race.
I’ve got the World Championships coming up in London and I’d love to end my track career by repeating my 2012 success with two more golds in the Olympic Stadium. Everything I’m doing this year is geared up to the World Championships, but there are some big races before that which I’m really looking forward to.
Do you plan on retiring after that?
My plan is to focus on the road after the World Championships. I’ve achieved a lot in my career already, but moving from the track to longer races is a massive step and I will be focusing all my energy on that. Marathons are really hard, but everyone knows I don’t do things by half. I will put in the hard yards in training to give myself the best shot at success.
After that, who knows?! There’s lots I want to try – whether its coaching, commentating or something else. Plus, I can’t wait to get to spend more time with my amazing family. It’s an exciting time!