Migration Pulse

Let’s celebrate Mo Farah

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.
August 6, 2012
Profile photo
John Perry

John researches and writes on housing, migration and refugee issues. John was Director of Policy at the CIH for twelve years, before moving to Nicaragua, where he co-ordinates projects with low income families. He regularly writes for the Migration Pulse as an MRN guest contributor.

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.

Mo Farah - Let's celebrate his success
Photo: Flickr - Paul Foot (Creative Commons Licence)

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?


First and foremost congratulations to all the atheletes who took/are taking part, and the winners of medals of all hues and from all nations.

I realise that this may not be a popular view and our response has definately got a few backs up, but whilst I agree we should applaud his acheivements (just like everyone else) isn't it about time we stopped with the 'wow, and he's a refugee' and does this mean we are all multicultural. It is a huge leap of logic to suggest that from one winning night we have gone from an anti immigrant nation to a happy, come one, come all nation state. We have seen this before with various seminal moments, the Royal Wedding last year the Jubilee this year, triumphs for multiculturalism, what was their lasting legacy. A single moment in time does not spell deep seated cultural change, yes its a sign and an indication. You would be better placed at looking why the London borough of Newham does not acknowledge the work of the local Newham Refugee and Migrant Forum and why it has despite repeated requests ignored the organisation in relation to the Olympics.

Here are our blogs on the issue:


The issue will be the main feature of our annual conference Migration Matters 2012 on the 12th December 2012 email [email protected] for further info

I don't think this article goes down the route of the Sun editorial we've seen today and some other commentators who somehow constructed a smug feel good message along the lines "we are better, more diverse and more accommodating than everyone else".

I completely agree Rita, the thing to take on from the Olympics is definitely not "things are ok". We might think this is the case but like you point out this is mostly rooted in our imagination and TV created perception of ourselves as an inclusive "nation".

Reality hasn't changed much as a result of the Olympics or any other Royal ceremony. We need more than just the fluff.

Rita, I might be wrong but I read the article differently. What I think it says is that migrants have the potential to make great contributions to the nations if (or despite) the policy hurdles. By addressing these hurdles we will enable refugees and migrants to realize their potential and make their mark on British life, thereby dismissing the myths which inhibit integration. In the process, the likes of Newham Council might learn the lesson

What John Perry's article and the responses thus far indicate to me is how Mo's accomplishment illustrates the dangers inherent in an integrationist approach to migration.

Had Mo integrated, he'd have become an overweight, under-exercised, self-congratulatory xenophobe.

By rejecting integrationist pressures and embracing the Kenyan principles of athletic asceticism, he has enriched Great Britain and become an inspiration to many of us.

This is why we should embrace difference; therein lies the strength which sustains true democracy.

If he would have fully integrated....

That made me laugh :)

A lot of good truths get spoken here. How refreshing.

It would be interesting to hear how Mo sees it and his experience of life in the UK and what it means to him.

The New Londoners interviewed Mo Farrah for our October issue .In the interview he talked about his experience of life in the UK.



Thanks for your comment and, as Azim says, the lesson I felt we should take from this is that Mo Farah,as a migrant and as someone who could easily have been a refugee if his father had not lived here, was able to overcome the obstacles and achieve something with which everyone is impressed. I don't think that as a society we are now integrated - far from it - but I do think examples like his might give more people pause for thought, who would normally go along with everyday perceptions about asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

Some might even notice the paradox that the Daily Mail is even now complaining about some of the athletes seeking asylum while they're here. One might be another Mo!

John - you would be the first to condemn it, if a murder committed by an immigrant was used to condemn all immigrants and rightly so. Similarly, an immigrant achieving wonderful things does not make all immigration beneficial. You can't have it both ways

Another interesting article on the issue of foreign born athletes and the Olympics

More of a London story than a UK one?