Perhaps like other readers of Migration Pulse, I was under the impression that Mo Farah, who won the 10,000m Gold Medal on Saturday evening, was a former refugee. Looking into his background, I find he isn’t – but it doesn’t matter.
He was born in Mogadishu and came here as a child, able to do so because his Somali-born father was already a resident. He came to escape from the mounting problems in Somalia, arriving via Djibouti, but like some other Somalis already had the family connections that enabled him to enter Britain.
Nevertheless, as a migrant, he apparently suffered various difficulties once his athletics career began. At the age of 14 he was selected for a British team to go to Latvia but had to turn it down when it became apparent that not only would he not be admitted to Latvia but, on returning to Britain, he would probably be refused entry here too. He had similar problems later when invited to a training camp in the United States, finally getting permission by making personal pleas to a Home Office official.
His career is a fascinating example of migrant integration. Coached initially by a keen London schoolteacher, he became fascinated by the tradition of English distance running and the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett, deciding that he wanted to follow in their footsteps. He later became friends with Cram, and the marathon runner Paula Radcliffe became one of his financial sponsors.
At the same time, he linked up with some renowned Kenyan athletes and began to appreciate the importance of their ascetic lifestyle for success at distance running. Interviewed by the Independent when he became European champion in 2010, he said: “The Kenyan runners are so humble and hard-working. They run, sleep, train and that’s it. I’m living my life in that manner now. That’s exactly what you have to do to be amongst the best in the world.”
On Saturday night he proved himself a noble exponent of both the African and the British distance running traditions. He runs like an African, looks like an African and was able to outwit the largely African field in a fiercely tactical race. Yet for the crowd he was a Brit who was delivering something that a proud tradition of distance runners, including those named above and many others like Brendan Foster and Ron Hill, had never managed to achieve: a Gold Medal at the 10,000m. He’s a Londoner too, who won on his own turf. It was a moment to celebrate London’s diversity and to provide a dramatic reply to those who question migrants’ contribution to Britain. Who couldn’t watch Mo Farah’s 53 second last lap and say that they don’t merely benefit us, they glorify us too?
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