To Sir, With Love
When you watch Mo Farah line up for the world 10,000m final here in Daegu on Sunday as one of the favourites for gold, it would be easy to assume that it was all preordained - an inevitable synthesis of natural talent and years of dedication.
Easy, but wrong. Had it not been for a benevolent west London PE teacher named Alan Watkinson, Farah may never have pulled on a pair of spikes, let alone gone to a World Championships as Britain’s best male distance runner in a generation.
Farah was a troubled teenager with little English and even less experience of running when he first turned up at Feltham Community College in the mid-1990s.
On his first day at Oriel Junior School in Hanworth a few years before, the recent immigrant from Somalia via Djibouti had gone home with a black eye after trying the least appropriate of his three English phrases (“Excuse me”, “Where is the toilet?” and “Come on then”) on the playground hard man.
Mo Farah insists he is not scared by the threat of the Kenyans as he prepares to add a world title to his European gold medals. PHOTO GETTY
Day one at secondary school began almost as badly.
“He was a few weeks late arriving at school, because he’d broken his arm playing football at junior school,” Watkinson told BBC Sport. “I taught his Year Seven class, and from the way he behaved at the start I thought he might be trouble. The first lesson Mo had with me, I was teaching his class the javelin. Now javelin lessons have to be strictly supervised, for obvious reasons. When I looked up to see where Mo was, I found him hanging from the football posts. I thought, Hello, we’ve got an interesting one here ...”
Still struggling to speak English, his only focus an obsession with Arsenal, Farah was a disruptive influence in the classroom.
“He was in a lot of trouble in his first year,” remembers Watkinson. “It was hardly surprising – he was trying to find an identity for himself, and he was one of the few black kids in school. There were lots of opportunities to mess around and he would just play up to that, do some inappropriate things.”
But Watkinson had spotted something special in the teenage tearaway. “You could see it so quickly. He has this lovely running style, this speed on the football pitch. He just never looked tired.”
Using a mix of encouragement (telling him from the outset that he had the ability to represent his adopted country) and gentle bribery (allowing him 30-minute football kickabouts if he came to cross country training) Watkinson persuaded Farah to put sport at the centre of his life.
“Sometimes it can be good with a kid like that to give them something to aspire towards, to tell them that they could be something really good,” says Watkinson. “I told him that he could run for Britain one day - it’s not something that I said lightly, and I told him much earlier than I might have told someone else, but I just wanted him to realise how good he was, because at that stage he was still a little bit reluctant.”
Most people’s memories of their PE teachers are of stern disciplinarians, tracksuit-wearing martinets barking orders at apathetic kids who would rather be indoors.
Watkinson was rather more forgiving. “Mo was a bit raw, you might say. He didn’t always understand instructions about a course and every time he got into the lead he would look over his shoulder to see where everyone was. On a couple of occasions, he took the wrong route and had to double back.
“He used to run the cross country trials at school and one time – in quite a talented group – he started off in the wrong direction and had to come back. But he would beat the rest of them time and time again.”
When Watkinson moved from Feltham to Isleworth and Syon School, Farah decided to transfer with him. Brentham United would lose a promising right-back, but British athletics was about to gain a rare talent.
Watkinson entered his young tyro into the English Schools Cross Country championships a year early. He still managed to finish ninth, the eight ahead of him far more physically mature and experienced in the ways of racing.
Twelve months on, Watkinson offered a fresh incentive: win the race, and I’ll buy you a football kit. Farah delivered with the first of five English schools titles, transformed from class clown to stand-out school success, a boy with no clear future to one notorious entirely for his excellence.
“I think running was the single most important thing by a very, very long way in turning things around for him,” says Watkinson. “He was finding life to be as I would if I went to a foreign country when my language skills weren’t very good - really struggling - and that made life difficult for him.
“He turned it round, and he turned it round very quickly when he got that status of being a sportsman. He was probably the perfect role model for others, because the vast majority of people really liked him from the moment he started doing that.
“Running helped his language and his social skills without any shadow of a doubt. He became immersed in a social life around his sport, he learned from role models like the coaches around his sport, and it kept him out of trouble.”
Farah’s agent Ricky Simms is in no doubt. "Mo might have gone off the rails if it hadn't been for Alan's input,” he says.
The current European 5,000m and 10,000m champion agrees. “I was very lucky to have someone who spotted me so early in life and gave me so much support and encouragement,” Farah told me this week. “As a youngster you don’t know what’s right – you just want to do what you want to do, you don’t know any better. If I had any problem I could go to Alan with it after work. He became like a father figure to me. Even now I call him ‘Sir’.”
Even now, as a 28-year-old? “It’s crazy,” admits Watkinson. “I keep telling him that he doesn’t have to call me ‘Sir’ any more, but he still does.”
Throughout Farah’s journey from skinny kid on the streets of Mogadishu to skinny man on top of the world, certain related figures have exerted a key influence upon him.
There is Paula Radcliffe, whose financial support enabled him to pay for the driving lessons that meant he could get to training sessions; Alan Storey, his coach at St Mary’s College in Twickenham; Simms, the agent who first suggested he should house-share with a group of elite Kenyan athletes living together in Teddington; Steve Cram, whose middle-distance races Farah admits to watching obsessively on YouTube.
All were present when Farah married his childhood sweetheart Tania last summer. But only Watkinson was asked to be best man.
On Sunday Watkinson will be at another wedding, this time in Dorset, making sure he has access to a television when the gun goes for Farah’s final at 1130 BST.
“Mo’s attitude towards his running was always very, very good,” he says. “He always trained very hard. He always trusted the people around him. He believed that he could achieve what they told him he could achieve.”