The distance runner, who said this week that he was trafficked to the United Kingdom as a child, trained under Alberto Salazar on his way to becoming a four-time Olympic gold medalist.
My first meeting with him was inadvertent, clandestine. It occurred in Albuquerque in October 2010. I had traveled there to write about another runner, the American Dathan Ritzenhein, as he trained for that year’s New York City Marathon with his new coach, Alberto Salazar, a former star who had morphed into an eccentric tailor, making alterations to Ritzenhein’s posture and stride.
There was another athlete at the workout, quiet and slight, introduced as Mo Farah.
He had recently become the first British man to win both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the European championships, but was not yet a four-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion. We shook hands, but Farah’s appearance that day was all hush-hush, as if this were a meeting of spies on a bridge in Berlin instead of a chance encounter on a clear, cool morning in the high desert.
I can’t recall the reason for the secrecy. Probably, it had not been made official yet that Salazar would become Farah’s coach. Anyway, Salazar asked me not to mention Farah’s name or presence. He seemed like a ghost.
That brief, furtive meeting, with its concealment and cloaked identity, came to mind when Farah made the stunning revelation in a BBC documentary this week that he had been trafficked under a false name to Britain from the Horn of Africa as a 9-year-old and forced to work as a domestic servant.
His despairing arrival was later soothed by encouragement from a physical education teacher, and Farah became one of the world’s greatest distance runners. He is the only man apart from Lasse Viren, the Finnish star of the 1970s, to win the 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) and 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) at successive Olympics. Farah also won those events three times apiece at the world track and field championships. From 2011 through 2017, he was nearly unbeatable on the track at his sport’s biggest competitions.
Farah’s racing style was not dissimilar to the way he faced the vicissitudes of his life — starting from behind, persevering lap after lap, patient and resilient, then finishing with an illuminating sprint to the tape.
On Aug. 4, 2012, at the London Olympics, before a throbbing home crowd of 80,000 spectators, Britain won three gold medals in track and field in a span of 45 minutes. Farah provided the crowning celebration in the 10,000 meters, giving the United Kingdom its first Olympic victory in long-distance running in more than a century.
In a tactical race of 25 laps that started slowly, Farah bided his time until the final mile before taking the lead. He ran the last mile in about 4 minutes 8 seconds and the closing lap in a searing 53.48 seconds. A pack of 11 runners splintered to five and dissolved in desperate surges, leaving Farah uncatchable down the homestretch, ahead of the silver medalist, his training partner Galen Rupp of the United States.
As Farah entered the stadium, he said later that night, “I was really buzzed, like I had 10 cups of coffee.” In that moment of adrenaline and expectation, he realized, “I have to do something.”
He was not a stoic victor, but one whose joy and delight were infectious.
A week later, Farah won the 5,000 meters in similar fashion, a measured start becoming a blistering finish. His friend Usain Bolt joined in the giddiness by putting his arms over his head to form an M and impersonating Farah’s jubilant “Mobot” celebration.
Even when Farah’s relaxed, efficient form betrayed him — as it did when he was accidentally tripped by Rupp and fell during the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics in Rio — it hardly mattered. Farah quickly got to his feet and still won the gold medal, then took a second victory in the 5,000 meters. In 2017, Farah was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, though in keeping with fusty royal custom, he did not ask her to do the Mobot.
Farah wore a top hat and tails and told reporters he had dreamed of “becoming something” by winning an Olympic gold medal. “As an 8-year-old coming from Somalia and not speaking a word of English, to be recognized by your country, it is incredible,” he said.
His story, though, was more complicated than that telling, on the track and off.
His former coach, Salazar, ruined his own career over accusations of fostering doping and allegations of sexual misconduct. He has denied any wrongdoing. Farah was never charged with doping, and has strongly denied it, but in a sport practiced in the dark arts of prohibited substances, shadows of suspicion were cast across his accomplishments.
He has told varying stories about his use of L-carnitine, a substance that converts fat to energy and is legal unless infused in excessive amounts. The substance was cited by antidoping authorities in sanctioning Salazar. Nine years ago, in an autobiography called “Twin Ambitions,” Farah gave a somewhat different account of his upbringing. The London Metropolitan Police are investigating his accusations of being trafficked.
If his allegations are confirmed, Farah would have told the BBC a story both forlorn and inspiring, revealing the sad beginning and brave determination of his life. He would have won his most important race. At 39, as he continues to run, he would no longer be trailed by his past.