Mo Farah and the fight against racism

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Going into the London Olympics, Mo Farah was far from favourite for either of the events in which he was running. As for his first final, the 10,000 metres: Wilson Kiprop and Moses Masai of Kenya had both run the distance in 27 minutes earlier that summer, while the 2004 and 2008 Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele and his younger brother Tariku (both running for Ethiopia) both had times of under 27:05. Farah’s best time for the year was a mediocre 29 minutes and 21 seconds. Andy Bull of the Guardian tipped Bekele for a third gold: “From the mountain top he occupies, Farah is a figure somewhere in the foothills, a man only just beginning to prove himself capable of competing at the highest level.” In the 5,000 metres, Farah had run a decent 12:56.98, but at just one race in July 2012, the Diamond League in Paris, ten Kenyan or Ethiopan runners had finished faster than this time.

As a black British athlete Farah was forced to carry further burdens. Weeks before the Games, an anonymous article in the Daily Mail complained that there were 61 “plastic Brits” in the Olympic squad. The article gave examples of nationality-swappers such as a formerly Ukrainian wrestler Olga Butkevych who had been granted a UK passport only in 2012 at the age of 26. The figure of 61 plastic Brits was gathered by counting every UK Olympic competitor to have been born (like Farah) outside Britain. Its journalists illustrated the piece with a photograph not of (white) Olga Butkevych nor of (white) Bradley Wiggins (born in Belgium to an English mother) but of Yamile Aldama, a black triple jumper who had been born in Cuba.

Mo Farah’s first event was the 10,000 metres. At the start, Kenenisa Bekele made his way straight to the front, with Farah in second. Yet far from stretching the pack, Bekele in fact slowed the race, going through 400 metres in just 65 seconds. The pace then slowed further, so that when Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea hit the front, after six laps, his average time was just 76 seconds, or about 13 second per lap outside world record pace. Tadese, the world record holder for the half-marathon, might have been expected to hit the front hard and sustain a fast pace, yet having briefly opened a gap, Tadese raced hard for just one lap (in 61 seconds; after which Farah was down in twefth and seemed to be losing touch with the leaders) before allowing the race to settle again into a pace of 64-65 second per lap, allowing “sprinters” such as Farah and his training partner Galen Rupp to narrow the gap on the leaders.

Three countries had teams of athletes in contention: Kenya (with two runners; Kiprop having pulled out after losing his shoe mid-race), Ethopia (three still in contention) and Eritrea (three). Victory would have required only a first runner in the team to set a fast enough pace, and a second (or third) to stick with them. Athletes hate running like a team; nobody wants to be the “bunny” who sets a hard pace, knowing they will not sustain it and will have to drop out, and someone else will benefit from their pacing. But the refusal to run collectively – this shared cowardice – cumulatively gifted the race towards athletes known for their fast finishes.

Mo Farah’s race winning time was slow: outside the top 20 races run all year; half a minute down on the best Kenyan times for 2012, 45 seconds outside his personal best, and 75 seconds outside the world record. Yet one part of the race, above all, was impressive: Farah’s last lap was run in just 53 seconds, a shattering 9 seconds faster than any other lap he ran all race.

The final of the men’s 5000 metres followed the script of the 10000 metres, with a series of athletes coming to the front briefly before slowing immediately on reaching the head of the race. Farah was one of barely a handful of runners “doubling up” by running in two events (Rupp was another; while Abadalataai Iguider of Morocco combined the 5000 metres with the 1500 metres in which he came third). Unlike the others, it was his third tough race in a week. To a far greater extent than in the 10000 metres, Farah had to fight to impose himself on the race. Into the last lap, he was leading from only 2-3 metres from a group of runners including Bernard Lagat of America a former Olympic silver medallist over 1500 metres, and Iguider, each of whom could have been expected to have a faster kick.

Farah’s winning time was again very slow: 64 seconds outside the world record, well outside the top 20 times run in the year. At 13 minutes 41 seconds, Farah was more than 15 seconds slower than the slowest time that any of the runners had run in qualifying for the final. Once again Farah’s victory was down to his sprint. As in the 10,000 metres, he ran the last lap in 53 seconds. By way of comparison, at the same Games, David Rudisha of Kenya ran laps of 50 and 51 seconds in the 800 metres final, and in doing so shattered the world record. Farah was only two seconds slower over his last lap having run six times as far.

Beyond Biggles

“Racism”, Dave Widgery of Rock Against Racism (RAR) once wrote, “is as British as Biggles and Baked Beans. You grow up anti-black, with the golliwogs in the jam, the Black and White Minstrel Show on TV and CSE dumb history at schools. Racism is about Jubilee mugs and Rule Britannia and how we won the War…” Widgery continued by referring to the visible racists of the National Front, then active on Britain’s streets, before turning his fire on what we would today consider the “institutional racism” of the police, courts and immigration system: “Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with the cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid is a challenge.”

Yet anti-racism too is a British tradition, and it has taken many forms, sporting as well as (like RAR) musical. Many football fans will be familiar with the story of how John Barnes, on signing for Liverpool in 1987, become only the club’s second black player, and received racism initially from both away and home fans before winning over the Anfield crowd by his brilliance on the pitch. It is a story encompassed in a famous photograph of Barnes back-heeling away a banana which had been thrown onto the field. Most football clubs in Britain have something like their own “John Barnes” story, and most sports have their “John Barnes” moments. National sporting teams play a part in this story; with anti-racists using their multiracial character as a rebuke to the racism of the politicians. In 2009, BNP leader Nick Griffin told a radio 1 journalist that English footballers Rio Ferdinand and Theo Walcott were not ethnically British; a racist sound-bite that the Labour-supporting Mirror newspaper quoted back at him during the 2010 election.

The iconic image of the Games was the sight of Farah swapping his “Mobot” celebration with 100 metre champion Usain Bolt’s “lightning Bolt”. Former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen tweeted, “Nick Griffin just choked on his dinner when Mo Farah won. Been rushed to hospital. An Asian doctor is treating him.” “Mo Farah’s famous victories in the 10,000m and 5,000m seemed like a validation of British society’s inclusivity and openness”, Oliver Holt wrote in the Mirror, “They felt like a victory for tolerance and acceptance, a thumb in the eye to the BNP and bigots ­ everywhere.”  Even papers usually associated with the Conservative Party were briefly willing to promote a similar message that Farah’s victory proved the viability of an England increasingly people by migrants. In the Daily Mail, Yasmin Alibhai Brown quoted Farah’s answer, after his victory in the 10,000 metres, when he was asked if he’d rather be representing Somalia, “Not at all, mate. This is my country.” “Mo Farah has sent a message of hope to all migrants” said the Evening Standard.

In the 1980s popular views on racism moved to the left (even while society, in other ways, was moving to the right). More recently however, there has been a sustained increase in racism, encouraged by politicians from each of the main parties but finding an unwelcome resonance in popular attitudes. It began with New Labour’s relabeling of refugees as “bogus asylum seekers”, continued with press attacks on Muslims during the hot days of the War in Terror and the easy ride given by the same papers to the anti-immigrant “think tank” Migration Watch, took in David Cameron’s courting of UKIP and EDL supporters by denouncing multiculturalism, and has continued right up to David Starkey’s verbal assault on the London rioters (one of whom was Farah’s brother) as “whites who have become black”.

The old racism of the 1970s looked ridiculous in the bright glare of the Mo-moment; and even the “new racisms” were temporarily silent in response to the victory of this Muslim former child refugee.

After twenty years of defeats, the Mo Farah moment articulated anti-racism in a visual, digital form, immediately, without requiring any of the “cultural translation” through the newspaper form in which the left specialises, but which in an age of social media leave most people cold. The challenge is to convert enthusiasm into the sinews of permanent campaigning against the racism that continues to affect so many lives: against ethnic profiling by police officers, against deportation, against racial bias in sentencing.

“Only connect”: we need an anti-racist idiom that joins up the sports fan with the protester against deaths in custody; the blogger with the athlete; the radical artist with the hundreds of thousands who grasp that racism is a poison and are open to the activist’s question, “so what do we do about it?”

For a moment, Mo reminded millions of all of us of the essential sameness of our lives, and of the brutality of the racism which treats the same experience so differently. His victory was a step in advance of the great strides that are still to come.

The above is an extract from my chapter in London 2012 How Was It For Us, published last week by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Gareth Edwards, and others. Available pre-publication, £2 off, just £12.99, post-free signed by Mark Steel from here

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