Running fans may remember the moment, back in 2017, when Mo Farah, arguably the most decorated distance athlete ever to grace the track, announced that, from now on, he would be going by his full name: Mohamed. The decision came as he was preparing to retire from racing on the oval to shift his attention to the marathon. “My road name is Mohamed,” Farah said at the time. “I just feel like Mo is done.” But Mo was not done. As it turned out, the abbreviated version of Farah’s name was already too ensconced in the British psyche—too much of a brand—and this modest attempt at reinvention didn’t really catch on. In the media, Mo remained Mo. If anything, it felt rather strange that a celebrity athlete in his mid-thirties—and four-time Olympic gold medalist—would bother with such a seemingly minor update to his public image.
I thought about this incident while watching The Real Mo Farah, a one-hour documentary that was released this week by the BBC, which reveals that there’s much more to the 39-year-old runner’s backstory than was previously known. (The film is officially only available to stream inside the U.K, but anyone who is even remotely savvy with VPN wizardry can watch it from anywhere.) As it turns out, Mohamed “Mo” Farah was originally named Hussein Abdi Kahin. Contrary to Farah’s previous claims that he came to London when he was a boy to live with his father, in the documentary he asserts that his family had never lived in the U.K. and that his father was killed in the Somali civil war when was four. The film’s most shocking revelation—one that was already reported by the BBC and other news outlets earlier this week—is that Farah was illegally trafficked to the U.K. from Djibouti as a nine-year-old and subsequently forced into a life of domestic servitude in London. We learn that “real” Mohamed Farah was another child whose identity was used to smuggle the future superstar runner into the U.K. “The truth is, I’m not who you think I am,” Farah says at the start of the documentary.
What did Farah’s domestic servitude look like? According to the account he gives in the film, he was forced to look after children while still a child himself. “If I wanted food in my mouth, my job was to look after those kids,” he says. Eventually, Farah convinced his foster family to let him attend school, where he was “emotionally and culturally isolated” according to a behavioral report. Sports were his sole outlet. In a Dickensian twist, Farah was rescued from his ersatz parents when he confided the truth about his name and abusive home life to Alan Watkinson, a benevolent PE teacher who helped Farah find his way to another, more welcoming family. Watkinson also nurtured Farah’s nascent running career and helped him become a British citizen, setting him on the path that eventually made him a global running icon. In addition to his four Olympic golds, Farah dominated the biennial athletics World Championships from 2011 to 2017, winning six golds and two silvers in the 5,000- and 10,000-meters.
Although the ostensible purpose of The Real Mo Farah is to illuminate, the details surrounding Farah’s entry into the U.K. remain sketchy. For instance, we never find out what kind of visa he had. Unsurprisingly, the foster family whom Farah accuses of trafficking him declined to be interviewed. We learn that the boy whose identity Farah took is the biological son of that same family and that (spoiler alert) he is still alive and well. The film also includes footage of Farah visiting his biological mother and extended family in Somalia, though the tenderness of the reunion is tempered by the prospect that those closest to Farah could have played a role in his exploitation: as Farah puts it, “The hardest thing was admitting to myself that someone from my own family may have been involved in trafficking me.” This is the specter that haunts the film, as well as its principal subject: Who arranged for Farah to be taken away, and why did he take the place of the “real” Mo Farah?
We don’t find out. If there’s a bombshell revelation here, it isn’t that Farah had a different birth name, but that Great Britain’s most celebrated Olympian was an unauthorized immigrant. The fraught and arbitrary nature of citizenship is one of the larger sub-themes of the film. In the documentary, Farah repeatedly expresses his anxiety about whether revealing the truth about his story will put him at risk of losing his status as a British national. From an outside perspective, this seems preposterous. Farah is in many ways the ultimate cultural ambassador for a fading superpower with a less than stellar history of colonial exploitation. An African immigrant whose athletic feats earned him the adulation of millions and, in 2017, knighthood from the Queen, Farah is an unabashed supporter of both Arsenal soccer and the Monarchy. The idea that the Home Office would retroactively revoke his citizenship seems implausible, to say the least. (Since the documentary was released, the U.K. government has issued a statement to the BBC saying that it would not be investigating Farah’s legal status.)
But there’s a danger in projecting too much, or making assumptions about someone else’s traumatic past. Although Farah’s citizenship concerns might seem overwrought, one could just as easily view The Real Mo Farah as evidence that even significant wealth and fame are not enough to insulate a Somaliland-born ex-refugee from fears about bureaucratic backlash, to say nothing of more overt forms of racism.
Which brings us back to the Mo-who-would-be-Mohamed Farah. It’s hardly a secret that “Mo” is more palatable to a portion of the British (and American) public. Did Farah personally prefer the contracted version of his name when he was growing up in the U.K., or did he just accept it as a matter of social convenience? Was his sudden desire to be publicly recognized as Mohamed somehow impacted by his secret past identity? The Real Mo Farah doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, but it certainly casts them in a new light.