The Runner Who Could

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The Olympic Games bring tales of glory and setbacks. Inspiring ones abound, but few match up to the one of an underdog, Samia Yusuf Omar, who lost the race but won the hearts of many. By Laila Achmad.

The Runner Who Could_Aquila Style
Picture by Pete Chonka

Beijing, August 2008. Inside the majestic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Beijing National Stadium, eight women are getting ready on each track. Worries and jitters show on their faces, but the fire of determination is in their eyes as they are aware that the hopes of each of their countries rest on their shoulders—or rather, feet.

They prepare themselves on the starting line and when the gun sounds, everybody holds their breath as the speedy women sprint across the 200-metre track. Less than half a minute after the starting gun they dash past the finish line, led by Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown with a time of 23.04s. Anxious looks have given way to tired yet proud faces as they catch their breaths. First place or not, they have all completed their duty to their countries.

All of them? Not quite yet. An unfamiliar skinny girl is still running. In contrast to the other runners’ minimal, state-of-the-art sportswear, she wears a humble, baggy shirt and knee-length trousers. Her long legs take big strides and her small frame allows her to move swiftly, but she is not nearly fast enough to keep up with her contenders.

Eyes are instantly drawn to the struggling girl, and the audience begins to cheer for her. When her scrawny legs finally bring her to the finish line, her time is 32.16s. It is the slowest time in the race. Yet, the crowd roars to cheer this young runner who could.

This hitherto unknown athlete is 17-year-old Samia Yusuf Omar of Somalia. She may not have won any medals for her country, but she earned something else: pride beyond belief, for bringing her country to the top international sporting event in the world.

Somalia has been torn by civil war for two decades. Piracy, poverty and famine add to the bleakness. It certainly is no place to train for the Olympics. But amidst the rubble and anarchy, the troubled nation managed to send two athletes, both runners, to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games: Abdinasir Said Irahim, and Samia, competing respectively in the 5,000-metre and 200-metre races.

The Beginning

Before the Olympics, little was known about Samia. She was born on the 25th of March, 1991 and raised in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, with six younger siblings. In 2006, Samia’s father was killed by a stray rocket that hit their two-room home.

Reports have described Samia as being from a poor family, living in a cramped house with only flat bread, wheat porridge and tap water for meals. But in fact, it has not always been like that. ‘I lived a very prosperous life before the death of my father,’ Samia tells Aquila Style. ‘I was a student at two schools, a normal academic school as well as a Qur’anic school.’ But after Samia’s father was killed, her education came to a halt, as she had to help take care of her household while her mother worked to support the family.

Samia discovered her life path as a runner one year on March 8th, International Women’s Day. She was walking with her mother and spotted a place where running tracksuits were being distributed. ‘I asked some kids there what it was all about. They told me it was an athletic competition, to celebrate International Women’s Day, and anyone who would like to participate was welcome. I then said to my mother, “Mom, I am going to compete.” That’s when I began running.’

Samia instantly showed her talent for sprinting. In that very first race, although Samia finished fourth, she gained praise from some of the coaches and even other athletes. ‘They said: You are good, [considering] this is your first time running. You have beaten some of the girls who are experienced competitors.’

But because of her family’s financial state, Samia did not have the luxury of option. If she wanted to run, she would have to do it while also taking care of her family. Yet, from her mother—an ex-basketball athlete herself—trusting that her eldest daughter would be successful one day, Samia had total support.

Samia began training in Mogadishu’s crumbling stadium with all of her limitations. ‘In the first few days, I wore sandals to run. After a week or so, my feet hurt and I couldn’t run because of the pain.’ Advised by her coach, Samia’s mother then bought her a pair of 50,000-shilling (US$30) running shoes, which, for Samia, officially secured her position as a professional runner. ‘What made me want to be a professional athlete [started from] running [as] my hobby. There have been many occasions where I dreamt about earning and winning international medals.’

In May 2008, Samia competed in the 100-metre sprint at the African Championships. Although she finished last, just three months later, she was suddenly chosen as a candidate to represent Somalia in the 2008 Summer Olympics. ‘When the coach told me that I was going to compete to qualify for the Olympic Games, I was so happy, I couldn’t sleep that night… I was so happy even before competing in any qualifying race, because I thought I was going to win. No one [in Somalia] could beat me.’

She was right. Along with distance runner Abdi Said Ibrahim, she qualified to represent her country in Beijing, China. Everything up to that point had felt like smooth sailing.

A Test of Spirit

But preparation for the race was another story. Civil unrest and the lack of security in Mogadishu posed serious obstacles to Samia’s athletic development. She faced constant resistance and threats from those who believed that women should not participate in sport. Inconsistent coaching, run-down facilities with mortar holes in the track, and the absence of competitive meets added to her hardship. She even feared for her life, often being turned back at roadblocks, by both government and rebel troops, while on her way to train at the stadium. ‘In all honesty, Somalis are nice people and 100 per cent Muslim. But of course, not everyone is good. [There are] those who inflict pain and suffering on innocent civilians and bombard them with heavy artillery.’

Samia also did not have access to study the Olympics’ previous races or her competitors. ‘Before the Olympics, I didn’t have any ideas about athletics—I simply just ran. My training was okay, but I had no experience whatsoever.’ Samia admits that because she had very little idea about the Olympic Games, she had zero expectations. ‘I even thought I was going to be a winner when I got there later. I didn’t think there were any females faster than me anywhere in the world.’ Reality hit when she finished as the slowest runner at the Olympics. Even so, Samia wholeheartedly realised that the loss was understandable and should have been expected. ‘I didn’t have the strength and the experience. I was simply a young girl brought to an athletics stadium with very poor training.’

But Samia claims that she has learnt a lot and gained a great deal of experience from the Olympics in many ways, including meeting world-class athletes. Samia also developed awareness of the value of being an athlete in the international community. ‘Since [the Olympics], my goal has been to become a champion athlete.’

To Muslim women who aim to achieve their goals, whatever it may be—show dedication. Without dedication, one can never achieve anything.

Leaving Mogadishu

So how did the experience affect Samia? ‘It has changed my life ever so drastically. I have become a well-known person in my community. There are a lot of people who show more respect to me now. People often talk about the name I have made for myself, [and it] has made me a positive and happy person. My family and friends are very proud of me.’

Sadly, Samia’s recognition was one of only a few positive changes she experienced after the Olympics. The war has intensified, affecting vast areas of the city, including the suburb Samia lived in. She shares one of her most frightening experiences. ‘One day I went to Bakaro, the largest market in Mogadishu, to buy a mobile phone along with my fellow Olympian. On our way, we were stopped by the al-Shabaab forces [an insurgent group fighting to overthrow the government of Somalia], accusing us of working for the Ethiopian forces, saying that it was the Ethiopian forces that we had bought these mobiles phones for.’ It got worse. The al-Shabaab tried to detain them, and would have succeeded had Samia’s friend not resisted. An argument continued for some time until one of the al-Shabaab generals arrived. He then decided that the athletes had nothing to do with the Ethiopian forces and let them go. ‘It was the scariest incident I’ve ever had,’ she recounts.

The last straw was when Samia’s family were attacked in their homes in the dead of night. ‘We had to flee the area to survive.’ That meant the end of her athletics training in Mogadishu.

Hope for the Future

The attack may have forced Samia from her home, but her spirit is still intact. Nevertheless, there are times when Samia becomes conscious of the fact that one person can achieve little without the support of the community—or in her case, support for her training needs. Today, Samia is pursuing her training in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, living with her maternal aunt.

Despite everything, she is still the same old Samia, believing that goals and dreams, which fuel her strength and determination, are essential. ‘After the Olympics, many people have said to me, “I saw you on TV!” To which I often reply, “You have seen me on TV not winning anything, but soon you will see me on TV as a champion.”’ She adds, ‘I am always hopeful… I believe things will always eventually get better.’

Samia is sure that if she can get enough experience, financial support and regular training, she is sure she can reach the stars. ‘To Muslim women who aim to achieve their goals, whatever it may be—show dedication. Without dedication, one can never achieve anything.’

Pictures Pete Chonka


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