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In conversation with Moe Sbihi, the British rower ‘Stockholm Syndrome-d’ into Olympic gold 

Three-time Olympic medallist, World Champion rower, MBE, the first British Muslim Olympic flag bearer: the highly decorated Moe Sbihi seems to have done it all when it comes to having a successful rowing career. I spoke to him to find out more about where it all started, and how this astounding success has affected not just his athletic career, but his personal life too. 

Moe Sbihi nonchalantly introduces himself as a “three-time Olympic medallist with one gold and two bronzes, and a multi-time World Champion in rowing”. We start at the beginning. Sbihi grew up in the rowing-crazed Kingston-Upon-Thames, with his British mother and Moroccan father, coming across the sport “by a slightly unconventional route”, spotted by Talent ID as part of their 2003 World Class Start programme, which visited schools in search of potential sporting stars. “There was a massive drive ahead of the 2012 [Olympic] Games. I just happened to be tested in the right place, at the right time,” he muses. 

As a teenager, Sbihi admits that he was “a bit of a dickhead”. On the day of testing at his “normal comprehensive state school”, all the tall kids had been warned that they had to bring their kit and take part. Sbihi explains how it so nearly could have all gone wrong: “I wanted to go and play football with my friends, so I got on the bus to the playing fields.” A twist of fate meant his PE teacher pulled back the reluctant 15-year-old and sent him off to the rowing test. “A couple of months later, they said, ‘you have all the raw parameters to be an Olympic medallist in 2012. Do you want to start rowing?’”  

I ask him about the process of becoming an Olympian. “I started rowing with the sole aim of winning the Olympic medal, and that sounds silly when I look back”, he says. “20 years ago, when I started, I was useless – I had no idea what to do.” Initially, he felt that he was going into an elitist environment – but the first few months at his rowing club started to strip back these “preconceived misconceptions”. He was also not that good. “I really struggled at the beginning – they said I had all this raw potential, and it’s great to have all the numbers on a spreadsheet, but I kept falling into the water.” 

Sbihi was warned about the difficulties that lay ahead by his coaches, who let him know “it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and motivation – and even after all of that, it might not happen. The data could be wrong, you might get ill or injured at any point in your career – not everyone is going to be a successful athlete.” 

The struggle for a seat on the boat is a tough one, “Rowing is often epitomised as the team sport, but there are 30 men and 30 women who turn up at the start of each year for 21 seats.” Nine people are guaranteed to miss out on their dream. “Between the months of October and April, you are pitted against each other – you could be taken out of the boat at any point. And then almost overnight, you’re selected into boats. You and I could have been the fiercest of rivals, but the very next day, we’re expected to be teammates in a boat, and go and beat the rest of the world.” 

Despite this, Sbihi still believes rowing is the ultimate team sport, wherein “you could have an amazing race and think you’ve just rowed the best you ever have, and still be last.” Never more appropriately has it been said that the whole is far greater than the sum of the individuals.

The rower gained media attention in the lead-up to the 2012 Games, particularly as the timing of Ramadan, a holy month in Islam, overlapped with the Olympics. “I’d never been to the Olympics, and I got more attention than any gold medallist in the rowing world”. The media became obsessed by how he and other Muslim athletes would accommodate for what he describes as a  “clash of cultures”. “Fasting is one of the fundamental pillars in the Islamic faith, and if you decide not to fast, there are consequences – for every day you intentionally don’t fast, you have to fast an additional 30 days, or you need to feed 60 needy people. It worked out to nearly five years of fasting – it was impossible.” Coming out from 2012 slightly disillusioned with a bronze medal, he decided to maintain a media blackout in 2013 to focus on his athletic performance and avoid media controversies surrounding his faith. That winter, something changed. “I was being foolish – I was one of the first practising Muslims within Team GB Rowing, and I had this platform that young Muslim kids could look up to.” 

I ask more about the sportsman’s identity, and he explains the close links he feels to two countries – Britain and Morocco. Having spent all his summers with his family there, he feels , “very, very close to the country of Morocco”. He describes the emotions tied to representing Team GB whilst having strong ties to another country. “At the start line representing Team GB with the flag on your chest, you can’t help but feel proud to be sitting in a boat of one of the leading nations in sport.” He believes some level of patriotism is necessary to be an Olympian, but the sense of team spirit is ultimately the most important aspect – “the feeling is unrivalled”. 

Sbihi has been widely recognised for his efforts and achievements, and was made an MBE in 2017 for services to rowing after winning gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he became the first Muslim flag bearer for Team GB. “I often talk about my journey being a fairytale from day one”, he says. 

I asked Sbihi to pinpoint the most pivotal moments of his journey, to gauge how he perceives his career and personal life. He identifies his parents’ encouragement to “see the journey through” when he was young as fundamental to his later success, despite the fact that he “hated rowing” when he first started. His mental shift by the end of 2013 was formative to his later success, during the period of his media blackout, which he candidly describes as “one of the most difficult years in terms of mental fortitude”. He reveals the reality that “I became World Champion in 2013. But I didn’t speak to my teammates for weeks and weeks. I felt like I was going off the rails and trying to rebel against all kinds of institutions.” But he was stuck, “I was expected to be the best, and so I had to change my mindset.” His personal development did not stop here – as the rower continued to succeed, he describes how his father’s illness in the run-up to Rio, and the birth of his child, made him realise “you’re not rowing just for yourself, but you’re rowing for others”.

Progress is not linear, Sbihi points out. “Getting the gold medal is probably one of the biggest hand brakes you can ever get as an athlete,” he admits. By 2016, he was the person to beat, without knowing if he could live up to his prior success. He points out that he feels lucky to have won multiple medals, but that the hunger for success has never quite been suppressed. “I still don’t feel completely happy after the career I’ve had. You can always look back and think that something could have gone better. I applaud the athletes that are able to get one gold medal and then just leave the sport, because the ‘what ifs?’ are still running through my head now.” 

He leaves me with this final reflection: “I didn’t like the sport, but I fell in love with the sport. It wasn’t, you know, love at first sight – Stockholm Syndrome is probably the best way to describe it”, he jokingly concludes. The sporting star has indeed achieved his position via rather unconventional means, coming across his talent unwittingly as a teenager, and dealing with questions of fame, faith and patriotism since. He has challenged what it means to be a British Olympic rower, upholding his complex identity and becoming a role model for many, through his impressive integrity and hard work. 

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