Mo Farah: Fly Mo discovers his cutting edge

He is in the running for Sports Personality of the Year tonight – and the world 5,000m champion tells Simon Turnbull he has no intention of taking his foot off the gas in an Olympic year

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The Independent Online

Mo Farah was back on home ground yesterday, heading straight from Heathrow to St Mary's University College in Twickenham after a marathon flight from his training base at Portland on the west coast of the United States. "I've got some good memories of this place," he said, sitting alongside his wife, Tania, and his agent, Ricky Simms, in the ornate Waldegrave Drawing Room. "I spent six or seven years here, living in the halls of residence, studying and training. It's a second home to me."

It was with his original home in mind that the world 5,000m champion made a bee-line for his alma mater in south-west London before heading up to Salford to join the other nine contenders for the main prize at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show tonight. Farah has been a Londoner since the age of eight and won his world title in South Korea in August wearing a Great Britain vest, but he was born in Mogadishu and has never forgotten his Somali roots.

"There are lots of kids dying in Somalia every day," he said. "There are 3.2 million people starving. I went back with my family in September and just seeing the situation touched me. Now that I'm a world champion, I can do something to help."

Hence the launch yesterday of the Mo Farah Foundation. "We're just starting off," Tania Farah, her husband's public relations manager, said, "but we have some basic aims. Around £4,000 is enough to build a well that can support a village and we aim to build at least 10 of those this year alone."

The Farahs and their six-year-old daughter, Rihanna, were mobbed on the streets when they visited Somalia in the wake of Mo's gripping victory in the 5,000m final in Daegu. The 28-year-old is a national hero in his native land, even though he spent most of his early life in Djibouti before moving to London to join his father in 1991.

Farah is a national hero in Britain, too, following his heroics in South Korea, where he was pipped for the gold in the 10,000m by the fast-finishing Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia before holding off all challengers in the 5,000m and becoming the first male British distance runner to win a global title. Two decades ago, when he first arrived in London, he knew just two phrases in English: "Excuse me" and "Where's the toilet?"

Tonight he could become the first African-born Sports Personality of the Year. Farah stands third in the betting, behind Mark Cavendish and Darren Clarke. "I hope to do well but 10 class people have been nominated," he said. "I've had a great year and just want to enjoy the occasion."

It might have been different. The man who parades a Union Flag bearing the legend "Fly Mo" when he embarks on his laps of honour could have become a Flying Dutchman. "Yes, I almost went to the Netherlands instead of coming to Britain," he said, chuckling at the thought. "My grandmother lives there."

Happily for Charles van Commenee, the Dutchman in charge of Britain's Olympic track-and-field team, Farah will be wearing the red, white and blue of the host nation when the Olympics come to London next summer. For all of Britain's rich distance-running tradition – for Dave Bedford, Brendan Foster, Chris Chataway, Gordon Pirie – no-one representing these shores has ever won an Olympic title at 5,000m or 10,000m. That Farah is being considered as a serious contender for the "distance double" on the track – a feat achieved by all-time greats such as Emil Zatopek, Lasse Viren, Miruts Yifter and Kenenisa Bekele – is a measure of how far he has come in the last three years.

On his Olympic debut in Beijing in 2008, he failed to reach the final of the 5,000m. Last year he established himself as the supreme distance runner in Europe, winning the 5,000m and 10,000m in convincing fashion at the continental championships in Barcelona. This year he has gained global predominance since uprooting from south-west London in February to join the elite group of Americans guided by Alberto Salazar at Nike's headquarters on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.

It has been a smart move in every respect. Farah has gained a cutting edge under Salazar, a three-time New York City Marathon champion whose holistic approach to coaching includes the use of underwater and anti-gravity treadmills, cryosauna recovery chambers and barefoot running. He has also gained a bolt-hole away from the hysteria of a home Olympics.

"When I made the decision to train in Portland I wasn't thinking about it taking the pressure off me," Farah reflected. "I was finishing sixth or seventh in global events, just half a second behind a medal and I was thinking, 'What can make the difference?'

"Going the other side of the world to be coached by Alberto has made that one or two per cent difference. I could have stayed in the UK with my family in a nice house and I'd never have known if it might have made a difference. I was willing to take the risk. To go through that and get it right has been amazing. To move my family wasn't easy but as an athlete you have to make sacrifices. It's not nice spending Christmas away from your wife and daughter, but if I want to do well at London 2012, that's what I must do."

Tomorrow, with or without a BBC Sports Personality trophy, Farah will pack his bags and head to Kenya, where he will spend Christmas and the early part of Olympic year grafting at the Virgin London Marathon High Altitude Training Camp at Iten in the Rift Valley. He will be back in Britain, and in a GB vest, for the curtain-raiser to the indoor season, the Aviva International Match at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on 28 January. By then, the big threat to Farah's dream double will have laid down a marker for 2012. Kenenisa Bekele, the Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion, runs in the Bupa Great Edinburgh Cross Country meeting at Holyrood Park on 5 January.

The Ethiopian failed to finish the 10,000m in Daegu but a fortnight later he recorded the fastest 10,000m time for five years, clocking 26min 43.10sec in Brussels. Bekele holds the world record at the 25-lap distance, 26:17.53. Farah's European record is 26:46.57. Farah's British 5,000m record is 12:53.11. Bekele's world record is 12.37.35.

Farah has labelled Bekele "the Usain Bolt of distance running". "I know Bekele will be there in London," he said. "I've just got to concentrate on myself and keep training and not think, 'I'm world champion now so I can take my foot off the gas'. I've already put last year behind me. I don't walk round thinking, 'I'm world champion so I can eat chips or a burger'. You have to stay disciplined."

Sports personality: The 2011 contenders

Mark Cavendish Won the Tour de France green jersey for best sprinter and went on to be the first British man to win the road race world championship in 46 years. Odds 1-3

Darren Clarke After dedicating his Open win to his late wife, Clarke won the hearts of sports fans all over the country. 3-1

Alastair Cook His superb form with the bat in the triumphant tour of Australia earned Cook the Ashes man of the series award. 33-1

Luke Donald Donald won four times in 2011, is world No 1 and topped both the European and US Tour money lists. 10-1

Mo Farah The leading 5,000m runner in the world this year, Farah won at the world championship in Daegu. 10-1

Dai Greene Added the 400m world championship to European and Commonwealth golds. 80-1

Amir Khan The light-welterweight knocked out Zab Judah in July but lost his WBA and IBF world titles to Lamont Peterson this month. 150-1

Rory McIlroy Won the US Open by eight shots just weeks after blowing a huge lead at the Masters. 10-1

Andy Murray Reached the semi-finals in all four grand slams, losing the Australian Open final to the all-conquering Novak Djokovic. 100-1

Andrew Strauss The first England captain to win the Ashes in Australia since 1986-87, he also led his team to a first whitewash of India on home soil for 37 years. 100-1

Jack Gaughan