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To Sir, With Love

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Tom Fordyce | 12:07 UK time, Friday, 26 August 2011

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.”


  • Comment number 1.

    Just noticed that TV live coverage is on Channel 4, hope they have some decent commentators. Why havent the BBC got them, they always do a good job , have good insightful comments from Michael Johnson. As long as they keep Edwards and Jackson anyway from the action no-one rivals them.
    I can see CH4 having adverts every 2 mins before the finals therefore destroying the build up.
    Shame on the BBC endless tripe on TV, i wonder why I pay a licence fee I hardly watch BBC channels these days.

  • Comment number 2.

    A great story and an example that everyone has a talent. I'm not so sure modern schooling always finds or nurtures such things schools are too big and time to precious.

    But this story should motivate children and coaches alike - it CAN happen if you want it too and can commit. Good luck to Mo.

  • Comment number 3.

    @1 - I think Ch4 outbid them for the rights. What a wonderful story though.

  • Comment number 4.

    I of course was referring to the story about Mo Farah.

  • Comment number 5.

    Good story, shame there aren't more Alan Watkinsons in this country!

  • Comment number 6.


    It seems a little odd to complain about the quality of BBC content in the same passage as praising it. The Beeb provides quality coverage but can't, indeed shouldn't win the rights to every athletics event year-round. I think it's fair to say a reasonable proportion of the license fee will be spent on athletics in the coming 12 months.

    Great website too.

  • Comment number 7.

    I like Mo a lot but to say that he has broken the mould is not exactly true as he is from an African country himself, I consider Bernard Lagat an African as well even though the rans for the USA. However I don't really think that a white man can run the times that the African athletes can do and he has come from our system so of course he is British.
    In the 10k he has beaten all the best runners so far except Kenenisa Bekele who probably the best of all time. However I don't really think he is fit at this time. Not race fit anyway, hopefully that we will be the case next year because you want the best at the major events. I think that Mo can win this year, he deserves to be a popular a modest man who has made the most of his chances in this country.

  • Comment number 8.

    What a wonderful story. really hoping Mo wins the 10K on Sunday & who knows he could even win the 5K too.

    Imagine if Mo had gone to a different school his athletic talent may not have been spotted or nurtured

  • Comment number 9.

    Chris1977 there are 'white' and certainly non west african athletes that can compete with the kenyans, ehtiopian, eritrayans over the middle and long distances, there just isn't the depth, just look at Mo's training partner galen rupp (who , ryan hall, craig mottram, collis birmingham, espanan, chris solinsky - but it's important to see that records aren't falling anyway (apart form the marathon) when mo set the world lead for 5000m in july it was the fastest time run for well over 1 year. the 5000m world record was set about 7 years ago, and was set before that about 12 years ago. so yes there are alot of good African runners, but we are currently waiting for another great runner to come back round (or back into form!!)

    With regards to Mo, you seem to suggest he is just potential good because of the lack of greats (I may be jumping to conclussions though, so apologise if you didn't mean that) only 1 of those above him run their best time in the last year another 2 in the last 3 years. he is only he is only 3.5 seconds (0.004%) outside the top 10 500m runners of all time.

  • Comment number 10.

    Rather he wins the 10k and does not run the double its a hard one to do and I favour Lagat in a slow race, his aim for London should be 10k gold much will depend if Bekele ever gets fully fit. As I said I I hope Bekele does get fit a real legend.

  • Comment number 11.

    Doc Davo No I give Mo a lot of credit if you read what I am saying he has beaten Merga loads of times this year no slowcoach at all. Mo Farah is a very very good athlete and has gone way beyond what I thought he could do this year but he has only become a real elite runner this year he is not in the class of Bekele or Halie or Paul Tergat and thats no shame all three are legends.
    You are right to mention those men who are not Africans but I can't see any of them getiing into the medals perhaps Mottram a few years ago but not now

  • Comment number 12.

    Chris1977 It's paul tergat who currently sits in 10th position in the all time 5000m times, less than 3.5sec infront of mo and it was set in 1997 in the height of his competition with HG and Komen.

    I agree with the comments, but their also aren't currently any atheletes banging on the door of the top 5 5000m times, unless a few have been running well within themselves lately, but can we really see WC producing a WR, and before we know it the season is over. I see 2012 being Mo's attempt to produce the medals and 2013 to produce the records, I think AZ will take a sensible approach with him an if the remain working together we'll see a pretty and long career.

  • Comment number 13.

    Records for Mo? Surely you only mean British or European there is now way on earth he will get close to Bekeles 10k or 5k records. He's 28 now and Bekele was much younger when he broke those records.
    Also I meant the Paul Tergat who is number three all time in the 10k.

  • Comment number 14.

    Ohourugus past is fairly catching up with her, is it any wonder ?


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