Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Jessica Yarmosky

With Storied Career Solidified, Mo Farah Reveals His Deepest Secret to the World

In the first world championships held in the U.S, there have been numerous memorable highlights, but one story has loomed over the grandeur of the events. On the eve of the championships, Sir Mo Farah, the beloved British runner, revealed that he was trafficked to the United Kingdom as a small child in a BBC documentary. The kicker? His name wasn’t actually Mo Farah at all.

When Englishman Jake Wightman beat out Tokyo gold-medalist Jakob Ingebrigtsen for the 1500-meter title Tuesday night in Eugene, no one was more surprised than Wightman himself. With his father announcing in the stadium, he outran the favored Norwegian for the gold in 3:29.23. It was the race of his life, which has only ever been bested by one other Brit: Farah. After his win, Sports Illustrated Weekly asked Wightman if he’d seen the documentary about his fellow countryman. He said he’d actually watched the film in Eugene and that it really moved him.The following transcript is an excerpt from the podcast, Sports Illustrated Weekly. Listen to the full episode on podcast players everywhere.

Jake Wightman: Sad, so sad. That was the main thing I felt, was the empathy for him. Mo’s been a hero since I was a kid, like I grew up with him coming through and winning all his global titles and Olympic titles. And I've been fortunate to have spent some time with him. I'm still in awe when I'm with him because of how good an athlete he is. And he's definitely inspired a whole generation of British athletes like me to believe that we can push it to the next level.

John Gonzalez: Before we get to what he recently revealed and what he went through as a child, give listeners a little bit of background on who Farah is as a runner.

Jess Yarmosky: Mo Farah is the greatest runner of all time in British history. He's perhaps best known for the London Olympics in 2012, his home Olympics. He won the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races on the track. So double gold there. But that wasn't enough for Farah. He came back four years later in Rio, 2016 and he won those two races again. It was a truly unprecedented double. How popular was he in Britain, John? We know what British people do when they're obsessed with someone, they knight them. And that's exactly what happened to Mo Farah. He came back to Britain after the Olympics. He was knighted in 2017. So he's technically Sir Mo Farah to us laypeople. And he's just hailed as a hero across the entire country.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

JG: So he's Sir Mo Farah, he's won four gold medals. He's a superstar in the sport, but then his personal life has been revealed recently to be something completely different. Thanks to a documentary that just dropped on the BBC. A lot of what we thought we knew about Mo Farah turns out to be untrue. Tell us about his personal journey, and what his story was up to this point.

JY: The story that we had come to believe about Mo Farah, the one that was actually solidified in his official autobiography called Twin Ambitions, was that he came over to the U.K. from Mogadishu, Somalia when he was 8 or 9 years old. He has said that he came with his mother and two of his brothers to live with his father, who at that time, we presume, was a U.K. citizen. That was a story that was told for so long.

JG: And then we find out that that's not actually how it went down and a lot of those details were altered or fabricated. So what actually happened?

JY: So the pretty big bombshell that he drops early on in the documentary is that he was born in Somaliland as Hussein Abdi Kahin. He said that despite what he's said in the past, his parents never lived in the U.K.

Somaliland is this semi-autonomous region in northern Somalia. The main industry there is agriculture, cattle farming. There's a lot of desert. And that is where Mo Farah actually came of age with his family. When Farah was 4 years old, his father was killed in a civil war there. So his father, who we presumed to be in the U.K., welcoming his son from Somaliland—that did not happen. In reality, when he was 9 years old, he was brought to the U.K. by a woman who on paper was his mother, but, as he clarified, was not in reality, his mother.

He was told that he would be living with relatives there. He got on a plane for the first time. He's given a passport. The passport has his new name on it - Mohamed Farah.

JG: So what do we know about this woman? Like how did they meet, why did she take him to the U.K.? How did that whole thing unfold?

JY: In the documentary, Farah revealed that he was living with his family in Somaliland, on a farm. And this woman had come to his home several times. And he doesn't really remember the details of how the decision was made, but he was told that he was going to go with this woman. He was off in search of a better life, and he was going to get on a plane and he was going to join relatives in the U.K.

That's what he was told. That's what his family was told, presumably. We also know that this woman's son was Mohamed Farah, and he essentially assumed the identity of that son with his paperwork.

Mo Farah stepped off the plane in the U.K. with a piece of paper that he says had contact details on it for relatives in the U.K.

And he says, as soon as they got to this woman's house, she took that paper and ripped it up in front of him and threw it in the trash.

Mo Farah (in documentary): And at that moment, I knew I was in trouble.

JY: He was exploited by this woman. He told the BBC that in order to eat, he had to clean the house, take care of this woman's other children.

That's what began several years of what was essentially indentured servitude.

JG: So he's a victim of modern day human trafficking, modern day slavery, really. And he's stuck in this home with this family that's not his own, but he does become Mo Farah. How does he find a way out?

JY: The way out for Mo Farah was school. He really wanted to go to school. He begged this woman for years to let him go. She, for obvious reasons, kept pushing back. He says she did not want him in school, but she did eventually relent. And in year seven, so when he was around 12 years old, he started at Feltham Community College.

School was actually really tough for Farah. He doesn't speak English very well. And he's obviously going back to a house every day, that's not his own, where he's basically being kept prisoner. School administrators said that they were confused about his past. He kept coming to school looking really unkempt. He looked uncared for. He was starting fights with kids. And another layer here is the fact that he was one of the very few kids of color in the entire school. And not to mention this is basically middle school, right? Which is already a terrible time for a lot of people. So Mo Farah definitely struggled when he first began at Feltham.

JG: So he is a seventh grader. He's getting picked on. He's getting into fights. How does he find running?

JY: Mo said it was around this time that he began running because he felt—as a lot of people do—that it was one thing that he could control.

He couldn't control his living conditions. He couldn't control that he'd been ripped from his family and lied to, but he could control going out on the roads and going for a jog. It was also this period in his life when he connected with his PE teacher, Alan Watkinson.

The BBC spoke with Alan Watkinson and Watkinson remembers. initially, that Mo was just incredibly fast, an incredibly talented runner.

Alan Watkinson (in documentary): We put him in a race and he won it. We put him in another race and he won it in every race. We put him, pretty much always would and then started with them by a long distance so that wasn't difficult to spot.

JY: Watkinson kept inviting Farah to join the track club, because he was so fast.

He wanted Farah to run with them after school. And Farah said he always had an excuse. The truth was he was not permitted to be at school, by the woman that he lived with, past school hours. So he could not just go to practice after school, despite his emerging talent.

And Farah told the BBC this is when he decided he needed to tell someone about his situation. He said that he knew that his gym teacher, Alan Watkinson, was a good guy. And so one day after school, he came to him with another student from Somalia who spoke better English than him, presumably to translate what was going on. And he told Watkinson everything.

At this point, Farah was 12 years old, and that childlike innocence really comes through when Mo shows up to school the day after he reveals everything with all of his personal belongings. He thought that he would tell his big secret to this adult, and everything would change immediately.

Obviously, that's not what happened, but things did change for Farah. Social workers were sent to his home. Farah said he told them everything. He was sent to live with a friend's mother, and Watkinson remembers watching Mo before and after his move to this other house. And he said he just kind of transformed.

Farah himself said a huge weight was lifted. He felt like he could be Mo Farah, which is kind of interesting considering that he wasn't Mo Farah, technically. But he really felt like he could come into his own identity as who this Mo Farah was, once he got out of that terrible living situation.

JG: So he gets out of the house, but obviously there are other hurdles for him to clear. He still needed British citizenship, right? So how does he manage that?

JY: Around the time Farah was 14 years old, he was so good at running that he began getting these opportunities to compete at higher level competitions.

He was selected to represent England at the 1998 World Schools Cross Country Championships in Latvia. And that's when Watkinson really began the process of trying to get him citizenship, trying to get him the proper papers that he needed to travel.

Watkinson played a huge role in making this happen. He still has a box that's basically filled to the brim with the paperwork that helped Farah get his citizenship. There were things like letters from school administrators supporting Farah: "I'm writing to you concerning a pupil we have at school. His name is Mohamed Farah, and he's an asylum seeker from Somalia. We'd very much like him to obtain his British citizenship so that he can run in the World Athletics Championships and represent Great Britain."

Finally, in July of 2000, Farah gets his British citizenship. He was officially on paper now as Mohamed Farah. He was an asylum seeker from Somalia. That was his official status. Now he's a British citizen. And he'd wondered early on when he first got to the U.K., where the real Mo Farah actually ended up. And in the documentary, Watkinson, his PE teacher revealed for the first time that the year before the Mo Farah that we know arrived at school, Watkinson had actually taught another Mo Farah for a few months.

And then that child had disappeared, he never heard from him again.

So you can imagine just how deep this identity crisis was for our Mo Farah, and still is.

JG: Okay. So he gets his citizenship. He gets out of the house. What do we know about the woman though? Who brought him to the U.K. in the first place? What happened to her? Did the authorities track her down?

JY: It appears that the authorities have located her in Somaliland. She's refusing to speak to media, but it appears that she and her ex-husband are both involved in this case and are both wanted for questioning.

Now she did say that she was willing to speak with police about the investigation. She maintains, however, that she was coerced into bringing Mo Farah to the U.K., but it's just a matter of the investigation continuing.

JG: All right. So those are the people who were posing as Mo Farah's family. He's in the U.K. He's establishing himself as a British citizen and as a runner, but he has a real family that's still back in Somaliland. Did he ever reconnect with them?

JY: So it’s around 2000, he’d just gotten his British citizenship and he started at university. And near his university was a Somali restaurant. Mo said that he would often go because it was very relaxing and calming for him to be there.

And he ended up meeting a woman there and struck up a friendship with her. And she told him that she was from Somaliland. She said, what's your mom's name? And he told her. And she said, your mom's alive. And to prove it, she showed him a picture of his mom. And he said that he was absolutely shocked, not believing her.

And she handed him a cassette tape and she said, this is for you. And he pops the cassette tape into the tape player. And on the tape was actually the voice of his mom.

She was singing to him and reciting poetry from his childhood.

The cassette tape had a phone number written on the back of it, and he called that phone number. And on the other end, his mom picked up and he was able to speak to his mom for the first time in over 10 years, since he'd been basically whisked away from the family home in Somaliland. This conversation led to them reuniting. He ended up flying back to Somaliland with his wife and his young son, going back to the farm that he'd grown up on and basically reuniting with his entire family.

Farah (in documentary): It felt amazing. That's my real mom. They are my real brothers. And I think as a kid growing up here, I was just me. And that was my name. That was my twin brother. That's my mom. This is the village. These are their people. This is where I'm from.

JY: One sticking point for Farah in this story is, who can we really blame for the trafficking? Now, Farah has said before, he doesn't remember exactly how it came to be that he was going to go to Europe with this woman. One of the hardest things Mo Farah said that he's had to deal with is the thought that a member of his own family could have been involved in some way.

And I don't know if that will ever be known, but that's obviously something that he has to contend with now.

JG: That is so heartbreaking. And there's so much to unpack here. And I would imagine Jess, that Farah had to process this for a long time. I mean, he is almost 40 years old and we're just now hearing the real story. So why now?

JY: He hasn't come out and said, “here's why I'm sharing this now,” but we can make some assumptions based on what we do know. He's 39. He's getting up there in terms of his age, on the track. Perhaps he thought, my career is winding down. It's been a solid amount of time since my last gold medal, I can share this now, there might be less of a splash. Obviously there was not less of a splash. This really reverberated through the track community and outside of it.

Another thing that's happening is there are a lot of heated debates going on about immigration in the U.K. right now. And he has not confirmed this, but one could conceivably think that he shared this story now to try to bring a human picture of what was going on.

JG: All that is commendable. I'm glad that he stepped forward and told the truth. And hopefully this will help other potential victims of human trafficking. As you mentioned, perhaps he expected that this wouldn't make a splash, it was the opposite. It was mind blowing stuff. It was huge international news. How was it received in the U.K. specifically though, and also in the track community?

Susan Mullane/USA TODAY Sports

JY: This news just was shocking and heartbreaking for a lot of people. First, if you're in the U.K. and you're a fan of Mo Farah, you have adored this man for so long. And I think there was this thought that he came here for a better life—I almost want to say a thread of pride. And to realize that he came here under the circumstances in which he did, that's something that British fans have really had to reckon with.

As soon as the documentary dropped, the U.K. government pretty swiftly responded to it. They said, you do not have anything to worry about. Clearly it's now public that he obtained his citizenship under a false name, assumed a false identity. The U.K. government said, essentially, you're Mo Farah. And beyond that, you were just a child when this happened, you can't be held responsible for what the adults around you did.

This has also sparked a lot of conversations about migration and human trafficking, especially in the U.K.

I actually reached out to an expert on this, Sunder Katwala. He's the director of a think tank called British Future, and they work on policy around identity and race and migration. And what's on people's minds in the U.K. when it comes to these issues right now is asylum seekers, and this deal that the U.K. is prepared to make with Rwanda to send asylum seekers from the U.K. to Rwanda. It's really divisive in the country right now.

Sunder Katwala: And it's definitely the case that, you know, somebody like Mo Farah in those situations could be on a plane to Rwanda being told to seek asylum there.

JY: The question becomes will Farah's story actually change policy in Britain? That's unclear, but Sunder Katwala said it will definitely change public attitudes.

There was a lot of talk after the U.K. government came out and said, Mo Farah, you are a citizen for life. You have nothing to worry about. There were a lot of folks who said, look, do you have to win four gold medals in order to keep your citizenship here?

Shouldn't regular people, people who aren't Olympic medalists have the same rights as this? And that sparked a conversation. Katwala said that yes, Mo Farah is an outlier in this case, but his story will still help move the conversation forward.

SK: I think it will have an impact on public attitudes by bringing out the complexity. And it isn't necessarily exceptionalism. It isn't necessarily about the four gold medals. It is also just about the humanizing of the story. And so, yeah, I think the emotional reaction to Mo Farah's story is that, you know, because he comes when he's 9 and he isn't going to school till he's 12, he's a boy with a life to lead. And we now know because of the actions of his PE teacher and of other people, that they intervene, and he gets to lead his life and he gets to do extraordinary things. But [will there be] a lot of sympathy towards a man who did ordinary things, given the chance to lead a life? Maybe he's a club runner and does quite well, and you know, has kids and a family and works, but doesn't become a sporting star. I think it's an ethically very complicated story to deal with.

JY: As we know, talking about migration and trafficking in terms of numbers, in terms of millions of people per year or things like that, that just kind of makes it arbitrary. It's easy to just throw around numbers. This story just happens to be about one of the greatest British sports people of all time. So that definitely will help to build public compassion toward the issue, according to Sunder.

JG: So at the beginning of the show, Jess, we were talking about Mo's legacy as an athlete, but now he shared this story that has huge implications. How do you think that changes the perception of Mo Farah, the person?

JY: Although I will say that the London Marathon is coming in October this year. And Mo Farah might surprise a lot of people. I mean, he's going to be 39. I still don't want to be anywhere near him in a race, if he’s running like the Mo Farah I know he can be.

So I think that'll be a nice homecoming for him, to be in London to be running this marathon after having shared this story. I think it's going to be a really special moment for Mo Farah.

He is already down in history as the greatest British runner of all time. His times, his medals, those things speak for themselves. I think his new legacy is somebody who was able to come forward with a secret that's really been weighing on him his whole life, about his own identity and really lean into it.

And I think that’s what we’ll remember. 

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.