‘I’m not who you think I am’ — the secret pain behind Sir Mo Farah’s success

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Sir Mo Farah during the filming of the BBC documentary, The Real Mo Farah (Andy Boag/BBC/PA) (PA Media)
Sir Mo Farah during the filming of the BBC documentary, The Real Mo Farah (Andy Boag/BBC/PA) (PA Media)

“Most people know me as Mo Farah, but that’s not my real name or the reality.”

He’s the most successful track distance runner of all time and the most decorated British track athlete in modern Olympic Games history, Mo Farah, 39, has revealed he is not the man we thought he was. His real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin and he was trafficked to the UK illegally as a child and forced to work as a domestic servant.

This week’s shocking revelation comes as the Olympic star told the BBC that he was given the name Mohamed Farah by those who flew him over from Djibouti in Somalia, aged nine to look after another family’s children. In a BBC documentary, The Real Mo Farah, airing tonight (July 13), Farah shares his story with the hope of understanding more about his childhood, how he came to the UK and challenging public perceptions of trafficking and slavery.

“The truth is I’m not who you think I am,” he says in the documentary. “Family means everything to me, and you know, as a parent, you always teach your kids to be honest, but I feel like I’ve always had that private thing where I could never be me and tell what’s really happened.”

So who is the real Mo Farah and how did he get here? From fleeing wartorn Somalia to being a victim of human trafficking, this is the incredible story of how he became one of Britain’s most treasured household names.

Sir Mo Farah (BBC/PA)
Sir Mo Farah (BBC/PA)

From East Africa to the UK

In his 2013 autobiography, Twin Ambitions, Farah initially claimed that he came to London when he was eight, barely speaking any English, to join his father. Speaking on the Jonathan Ross show in 2014, the die-hard Arsenal fan said: “I just remembered being excited and you know obviously seeing my dad was a big part for me. I was just excited to come off the plane [and] I met him…it was very exciting just going to school.” In fact, the true story is chilling.

Mo Farah was born Hussain Abdi Kahin on 23 March 1983 in Somaliland, a region in northern Somalia that broke away and declared independence in 1993, where his mother and two brothers still live. In his 2013 autobiography, Farah claimed that he was born in Mogadishu, and came to the UK as a child with his mum and two of his brothers to live with his dad. But this is false. In fact, Farah’s father died in a civil war when he was aged four and he became separated from his mother. “Despite what I’ve said in the past, my parents never lived in the UK. When I was four, my dad was killed in the civil war. As a family, we were torn apart. I feel like I’ve always had that private thing where I could never be me and tell what’s really happened.”

At the age of nine, Farah says he was trafficked to the UK via Djibouti where he was given the name Mohamed Farah and forced to work as a domestic servant. He was flown over by a woman he had never met before and then made to look after another family’s children.

Mo’s mother, Aisha, sent him and his twin brother to Djibouti to live with an uncle during the height of the Somali civil war, which cost the life of his father, Abdi, who was killed by shrapnel from a bazooka while tending his cattle. In 1993, he was brought to Britain instead of the real Mohamed Farah, who still lives in Somalia and has never been to the UK.

The woman who brought him in pretended to be his mother after using false documents to enter the country. This is when he realised he had taken someone else’s place after the man met them at the airport wondering where his son was. “He was her husband and their family name was Farah. He was waiting for [her] and his oldest son, Mohamed. When they got to the house, the woman destroyed the contact details Mo had for his only UK relative. At that moment, I knew I was in trouble.”

Sir Mo Farah with wife Tania after he was knighted in 2017 (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)
Sir Mo Farah with wife Tania after he was knighted in 2017 (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

The road to success

For the first few years, after he arrived in the UK, Farah was not allowed to go to school. But when he was around 11 or 12, he attended Year 7 at Feltham Community College, where staff were told he was a refugee from Somalia.

Farah always knew his passion lay in sport, and his athletic talent was first identified by his school PE teacher Alan Watkinson. His ambition was to become a car mechanic or play as a right-winger for Arsenal football club. When Farah was at school, he confided in Watkinson who contacted social services to extricate Farah from the people controlling him and helped him apply for British citizenship. He gained citizenship in July 2000 under the name Mohamed Farah, but these details were not made public until this week. And though this was technically obtained by fraud, the Home Office has confirmed that it will not be taking any action.

It was in Hounslow where Farah really found his footing. In 1996, aged 13, he entered his school’s cross-country competition and finished ninth, and the following year he won the first of five English school titles. After witnessing Farah’s talent, athletics philanthropist Eddie Kulukundis paid the legal fees to complete Farah’s neutralisation as a British citizen, allowing Farah to travel to competitions without visa issues.

Farah has said that during this period of his life, one of the few things he was able to control was his ability to get out and run. Farah’s first major title was in the 5,000 metres at the European Athletics Junior Championship in 2001, the same year he began training at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He lived and trained at the college before becoming a full-time athlete as his career progressed.

The golds flowed again at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with wins in the 10,000m and 5,000m races (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)
The golds flowed again at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with wins in the 10,000m and 5,000m races (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)

Farah later landed his first major outdoor gold medals by completing the long-distance double at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona. His real breakthrough came the following year when he relocated his family to Portland, Oregon, to train under Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project, where he ran personal bests over 10,000m and 5,000m – 26 minutes 46.57 seconds for the former, 12 minutes 53.11 seconds for the latter – before taking 5,000 gold and 10,000m silver at the World Championships in Daegu.

His success only skyrocketed from there. London 2012 brought him double gold, the third of three British victories within an hour at the Olympic Stadium on “Super Saturday”. Suddenly, he became a household name, with his “Mobot” pose – arms above his head in an M shape – becoming his trademark.

He also became known for the “double-double” at the Moscow World Championships and the following year turned into the “triple-double” in Beijing in 2015. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Farah made history as the first British track and field athlete to win three gold medals.

Mo Farah with his wife Tania Farah, daughter Amani and son Hussein (Getty Images)
Mo Farah with his wife Tania Farah, daughter Amani and son Hussein (Getty Images)

The family man

In April 2010, Farah married his longtime girlfriend Tania Nell in Richmond, London, and their wedding was attended by Paula Radcliffe, Steve Cram, Hayley Yelling, Jo Pavey, Mustafa Mohamed and Scott Overall, who was an usher. Farah also has a stepdaughter named Rihanna from this relationship. Farah and his wife share twin daughters called Asia and Amani, who were born in August 2012. In 2015, they welcomed a son called Hussein.

Nell says she noticed “missing pieces” to his story before they were married, saying in the BBC documentary: “I first met Mo in school. He was always smiling, that’s what stood out about Mo. Amongst the groups of grumpy teenagers, Mo was always happy-go-lucky. We were engaged by 2009 and it was during that period of time, sort of the year leading up to us being married, that I felt there were lots of missing pieces to his story. Behind the smile, there was something there and that’s when I started to ask questions.”

Farah’s popularity and success have not come without sacrifice. Farah has openly spoken about the hardship he has faced spending much of his time training at high altitudes away from his wife and their four children. “I’m away at high altitude training camps for up to half of the year, so our family time is precious. Tania and I do the school run every day – we love seeing their faces after school, especially as between us we do spend a lot of time overseas, away from the kids as well.”

He describes his son Hussein as “the most active kid you will ever meet, as well as Asia and Amani who are always playing outside.”

Sir Mo Farah and wife Tania Farah celebrate after completing the 2019 Simplyhealth Great North Run in Newcastle (PA)
Sir Mo Farah and wife Tania Farah celebrate after completing the 2019 Simplyhealth Great North Run in Newcastle (PA)

Farah is a Muslim and is an active supporter of the Muslim Writer Awards. Islam is an important part of his preparation. “I normally pray before a race, I read dua [Islamic prayers], think about how hard I’ve worked and just go for it.” He also notes that the “Qur’an says that you must work hard in whatever you do, so I work hard in training and that’s got a lot to do with being successful. [It] doesn’t just come overnight, you’ve got to train for it and believe in yourself; that’s the most important thing.” In 2013, he was named among the 500 most influential Muslims in the world.

However, his identity has unfairly landed him in hot water. In 2012, Farah said he had been stopped by U.S. Customs under suspicions of being a terrorist, which he attributed to confusion between his full name “Mohamed” and a computerised check-in process. On one occasion, he had attempted to prove his identity by showing his Olympic gold medals to customs officials, but it wasn’t accepted. At the time, he told the Sun: “I couldn’t believe it. Because of my Somali origin, I get detained every time I come through US Customs. This time I even got my medals out to show who I am, but they wouldn’t have it.” He also told the newspaper how he had trouble applying for a residency permit to live in Portland. “We were in Portland on a tourist visa so had to leave and re-enter the country as a resident,” he said. “So we flew to Toronto to stay for a few days, then come back in. But when we were there we got a letter telling us we were under investigation as a terrorist threat and we would have to stay away for 90 days. We had only packed four days’ worth of clothes. We didn’t know what to do.”

In 20178, after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily suspending the immigration of Somali-born U.S. permanent residents, Farah made a statement on his Facebook account stating that, “I will have to tell my children that Daddy might not be able to come home.”

Sir Mo Farah’s track triumphs have earned him a knighthood and a place as a British household name (Adam Devy/PA) (PA Wire)
Sir Mo Farah’s track triumphs have earned him a knighthood and a place as a British household name (Adam Devy/PA) (PA Wire)

From household name to controversy

After his outstanding 2012 successes, Farah was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2013 New Years’ Honours for services to athletics. The decision was met with criticism after Farah’s PE teacher Atkinson shared his disappointment that Farah was not knighted and that the decision “discredits the system, although it’s still a fantastic achievement for Mo and well deserved.” He was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to athletics.

During the 2012 Olympics, Farah was part of the Nike Oregon Project and was coached by American Alberto Salazar. In 2015, Salazar was named in a joint BBC Panorama and ProPublica investigation into doping allegations. This involved testimonies from various athletes and people associated with Salazar about alleged micro-dosing of testosterone and prednisone at the Nike Oregon Project. This caused a wave of controversy for Farah, who was called upon by critics to distance himself from the coach. In an interview with Sky News, Farah said he had never taken banned substances to gain a competitive advantage and that he would leave the Nike Oregon Project should the allegations against his coach be proven true. “For people to think I’m taking a shortcut, it’s not right, and it’s not fair.”

In 2017, Farah cut ties with Salazar and returned to his family in the UK. In October 2019, Salazar and Nike Oregon Project doctor Jeffrey Brown received four-year bans from athletics for the trafficking of testosterone, the prohibited use of L’carnitine and tampering with doping controls. Salazar has vowed to clear his name but lost his appeal last year and the four-year ban was upheld.

Farah then announced he would switch from track events and turn his attention to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships, where he won the 10,000m and came second in the 5,000m.

In August 2017, Farah decided to hang up his GB vest once and for all. “All I ever wanted to do as an athlete is run for Great Britain,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid, I got interviewed and asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to run for Great Britain. It’s like wow, and then you compete in the world juniors and stuff. It’s been amazing. It’s been incredible. Now it’s finally done, I won’t be competing for Great Britain, in terms of major championships, I won’t be taking part.”

He appeared to make the right decision as he went on to win the inaugural London Big Half Marathon in 2018, in preparation for the London Marathon. On 22 April 2018, Farah came third in the London Marathon in a time of 2:06:022, comfortably beating the British record of 2:07:13 set by Steve Jones in 1975. At the finish line, Farah said: “I’m knackered. These guys went for it, for the world record. It was do or die and I wanted to hold on as long as I could but I’m satisfied with the result. I can’t do any better than what I did.

“I got a personal best, I fought as much as I could. You have to be a man, fight like a man, or staff off in the back and regret it later on. I fought as much as I could,” he said of losing the top spot to Eliud Kipoche who crossed the finish line in 2:04:17. At the Chicago Marathon, Farah went on to take home gold and set a new European record of 2:05:11, a 37-second personal best.

In 2019, he announced that he was considering taking part in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “I was honest and said I was done with track but part of me missed it. I feel like I can still win medals and do as well as I have over the years,” he said. But the athlete failed to qualify. When asked if this was the end of his career, he said: “It’s a tough one. If I can’t compete with the best, I’m not just going there to finish in a final. Tonight shows it’s not good enough.”

Sir Mo Farah and his wife Tania (Andy Boag/BBC/PA) (PA Media)
Sir Mo Farah and his wife Tania (Andy Boag/BBC/PA) (PA Media)

Philanthropic endeavours

Outside of his decorated athletic career, Farah is heavily involved in various philanthropic initiatives, having launched the Mo Farah Foundation after a trip to Somalia in 2011. He later took part in the 2012 Olympic hunger summit at 10 Downing Street hosted by then prime minister David Cameron, as part of a series of international efforts seeking to respond to the return of hunger as a high-profile global issue.

In 2017, he became a global ambassador for Marathon Kids. Speaking of his new role, he said: “I love running, and it’s given me and my family so much. As a dad, I know how important it is for my children to be active, and I’m honoured to have the chance to inspire kids to run with Marathon Kids.” Three years later, Farah appeared in the reality show I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here and became the eighth celebrity to be eliminated alongside dancer AJ Pritchard.

The Real Mo Farah airs on Wednesday 13 June at 9pm on BBC One

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