This interview, part of our series of inspiring life stories across continents, was first published in January 2021, before Mohamed Sbihi was chosen as a flag bearer for Team GB at the Tokyo Olympics.
Mohamed Sbihi endured the trials of lockdown but is now in the Olympics spotlight
Moe Sbihi should be kicking back doing whatever it is that retired Olympic champion rowers do when they no longer have to wake early in the cold and the wet to get back in the boat.
Retirement for Sbihi, 32, was supposed to come just after his Team GB shell crossed the finishing line in the final at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo three months ago.
Another gold to add to his win in the men’s coxless four in the team’s blue riband boat at Rio 2016 and bronze in the men’s eight at London 2012 would have perfectly capped off his swansong event.
At the twilight moment of his competitive career, Sbihi was instead at home. His UK home, that is, not too far from where he was born in the town of Kingston to a Moroccan father and an English mother.
His upbringing, however, involved spending his summers in Tangiers with the paternal side of his family since he was a toddler, and now he always has a base to return to in North Africa. “When I am there, I call the UK home and when I’m here, I call Morocco home,” he says, his voice unfeasibly deep, over a Zoom call.
The coronavirus pandemic that triggered the postponement of the Olympic Games in Japan by 12 months may have granted Sbihi a brief reprieve but he knows that, 17 years after he was first scouted, it’s almost time to hang up the Team GB kit for good.
"I need to move away from the sport after next summer," he told The National. "It will be very easy to say, 'oh, it's three years, everybody can go on and do three years.' I'm getting older, the physical and mental toll that it's taken on me over the last couple of seasons is only going to get worse."
Thankfully, there are a few more oar strokes in him yet. During these Covid-19 times, the Team GB rowing squad has been split into two “bubbles” that alternate between coming in first thing in the morning or the afternoon to lift socially distanced weights at the training centre, and then have a stint on the lake beside it.
The third session of the day is spent in his back garden near Maidenhead, where he fears that his routine torments the neighbours and the neighbours’ neighbours. “It’s amazing how many doors down the street can hear the fan whirring away on the rowing machine,” Sbihi says.
This time last year, it would have been inconceivable to him that he would be conscientiously scheduling training sessions in October around other people’s morning lie-ins, lunch plans or screen breaks.
"I’m still an athlete,” he says. “I’m still grinding away. I think the pandemic gave me a real perspective - life is very important and sport can sometimes pale into insignificance compared to what some people have experienced, especially over the last six months with Covid and what will happen this winter.
"But, no, every day moving forwards is one more that I had never imagined that I would be having again. So I try to get that energy and gusto to attack every single day."
In truth, the postponement of the Olympics may have granted him a lifeline for the gold because he wasn't fully fit after sustaining a rib injury. There was the day in May, a week after observing Ramadan this year, that Sbihi made a decent attempt at the Team GB 2km indoor rowing record, but his body was still in recovery from the effects of fasting.
“Then all of a sudden, four weeks later, I started to feel good and I thought: ‘Well, I need to have a good go at this’ because I’d never had such a long, focused and enjoyable amount of time on the rowing machine,” he says, describing the lead up to his successful effort that broke the record and rowing's equivalent of the four-minute mile.
“It’s really nice and something that I will definitely look back on through this pandemic experience as very, very rewarding.”
His Islamic faith means an enormous amount to him, encapsulated in countless childhood memories of celebrating Ramadan and Eid, but it also, he says, provides him with guidance and extra focus when he performs or endures periods like this year's lockdown.
“What it gives me is a sense of calm,” Sbihi says. “Ultimately, of course, I’m going to be feeling nervous, and nerves are good, but the most important thing for us is to be level-headed and focused on the task, and I think that the Koran just helps zone me in.”
He was the first practising Muslim to row for Team GB. The fact that he is still the only one is something that he much laments, but also - fairly or unfairly - somewhat blames himself for. Though his name is Mohamed, he has always been known by his nickname of Moe, not least because his father is also called Mohamed.
Sbihi, however, can’t help feeling that he should have, at least publicly if not privately, gone by his full name. “I had a good reflection during the Black Lives Matter, during the tension that was building around it,” he says. “I just found that I had shied away from Mohamed because of everything negative that happened since 2001 onwards. So it was great to be somebody who was being profiled in the press about Ramadan and for my Islamic faith through the London Games and through Rio. But did I miss an opportunity to actually put my name out there as Mohamed because I am an ambassador for my faith as well as for British rowing?
“I easily pass under the radar because I look English, I sound English, I am obviously British but if you see the name of Moe, then you might not necessarily make the link that he’s somebody of Islamic faith.
"I was just thinking how many times growing up in the sport of rowing would I have liked to have had somebody else called Mohamed that I wanted to aspire to be like or to try and emulate or better?”
The sport has been and is trying to change to break down the barriers, he says, but more needs to be done. Clubs must stop approaching the same schools year after year and instead come up with initiatives and outreach schemes to encourage children from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds to get into rowing boats.
He has learnt the hard way, though, why diversity in rowing is not where it perhaps could or should be. Sbihi, whose father was a barber and whose mother worked at Marks and Spencer, describes himself growing up as a “normal kid who went to a normal [state] school” in London who just happened to be talent-spotted at the age of 15 by the World Class Start initiative. Even back then he was 6ft 5in, but it still took him 14 years of toil to win an Olympic medal. “It’s a long old process,” he concedes. "Unfortunately, if you ask the general public if they think that this is a sport that anybody can do, they’ll often say: ‘No, you have to be middle-class, white, posh'.
“I'm not being elitist here when I say this: what we want to try to do as a sport is increase participation, increase levels of success for those who are of different backgrounds. Hopefully, the squad moves forwards after a certain amount of time when it happens naturally that the levels are representative of the rest of British society.”
Sbihi expresses the hope that the IOC will re-evaluate its ban on political gestures because he feels that taking the knee spreads an understanding of and an insight into what is happening around the world.
Asked if such acts and gestures were allowed, would he demonstrate his support on the podium in his third consecutive Olympics, he is emphatic: “Most definitely.”
As he steels himself for one last push for gold, Sbihi faces the battle without Jurgen Grobler, 74, the coach who has long been at his side and accumulated a tally of 33 podium topping finishes for his charges.
“There is no animosity towards him,” he says. “The disappointment is that we weren’t able to finish the journey off together. I’d imagined that this would have been his last Olympics. I knew that it was more than likely going to be mine so I pictured how I was going to finish off my Olympic journey, and what I was going to give him.” So finish he will. And then?
"I need to move away," he says, circling back to his own retirement. "Then, if I miss it, I miss it. I will miss it. Everybody misses what they do when they retire, but if I miss it enough that I have pangs that I need to go back then I can evaluate that again with my wife. You know, more than likely, never say never because I don't want to be the person who says: 'Shoot me if you see me in a boat' and then four years later I'm winning an Olympic medal again, but more than likely this is the last."