By Charles Robinson
Samia Yusuf Omar headed back to Somalia Sunday, returning to the small two-room house in Mogadishu shared by seven family members. Her mother lives there, selling fruits and vegetables. Her father is buried there, the victim of a wayward artillery shell that hit their home and also killed Samia’s aunt and uncle.
This is the Olympic story we never heard.
It’s about a girl whose Beijing moment lasted a mere 32 seconds – the slowest 200-meter dash time out of the 46 women who competed in the event. Thirty-two seconds that almost nobody saw but that she carries home with her, swelled with joy and wonderment. Back to a decades-long civil war that has flattened much of her city. Back to an Olympic program with few Olympians and no facilities. Back to meals of flat bread, wheat porridge and tap water.
“I have my pride,” she said through a translator before leaving China. “This is the highest thing any athlete can hope for. It has been a very happy experience for me. I am proud to bring the Somali flag to fly with all of these countries, and to stand with the best athletes in the world.”
There are many life stories that collide in each Olympics – many intriguing tales of glory and tragedy. Beijing delivered the electricity ofUsain Bolt and the determination of Michael Phelps. It left hearts heavy with the disappointment of Liu Xiang and the heartache of Hugh McCutcheon.
But it also gave us Samia Yusuf Omar – one small girl from one chaotic country – and a story that might have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for a roaring half-empty stadium.
It was Aug. 19, and the tiny girl had crossed over seven lanes to find her starting block in her 200-meter heat. She walked past Jamaica’sVeronica Campbell-Brown – the eventual gold medalist in the event. Samia had read about Campbell-Brown in track and field magazines and once watched her in wonderment on television. As a cameraman panned down the starting blocks, it settled on lane No. 2, on a 17-year old girl with the frame of a Kenyan distance runner. Samia’s biography in the Olympic media system contained almost no information, other than her 5-foot-4, 119-pound frame. There was no mention of her personal best times and nothing on previous track meets. Somalia, it was later explained, has a hard time organizing the records of its athletes.
She looked so odd and out of place among her competitors, with her white headband and a baggy, untucked T-shirt. The legs on her wiry frame were thin and spindly, and her arms poked out of her sleeves like the twigs of a sapling. She tugged at the bottom of her shirt and shot an occasional nervous glance at the other runners in her heat. Each had muscles bulging from beneath their skin-tight track suits. Many outweighed Samia by nearly 40 pounds.
After introductions, she knelt into her starting block.
The country of Somalia sent two athletes to the Beijing Games – Samia and distance runner Abdi Said Ibrahim, who competed in the men’s 5,000-meter event. Like Samia, Abdi finished last in his event, overmatched by competitors who were groomed for their Olympic moment. Somalia has only loose-knit programs supporting its Olympians, few coaches, and few facilities. With a civil war tearing the city apart since the Somali government’s collapse in 1991, Mogadishu Stadium has become one of the bloodiest pieces of real estate in the city – housing U.N. forces in the early 1990s and now a military compound for insurgents.
That has left the country’s track athletes to train in Coni Stadium, an artillery-pocked structure built in 1958 which has no track, endless divots, and has been overtaken by weeds and plants.
“Sports are not a priority for Somalia,” said Duran Farah, vice president of the Somali Olympic Committee. “There is no money for facilities or training. The war, the security, the difficulties with food and everything – there are just many other internal difficulties to deal with.”
That leaves athletes such as Samia and 18-year old Abdi without the normal comforts and structure enjoyed by almost every other athlete in the Olympic Games. They don’t receive consistent coaching, don’t compete in meets on a regular basis and struggle to find safety in something as simple as going out for a daily run.
When Samia cannot make it to the stadium, she runs in the streets, where she runs into roadblocks of burning tires and refuse set out by insurgents. She is often bullied and threatened by militia or locals who believe that Muslim women should not take part in sports. In hopes of lessening the abuse, she runs in the oppressive heat wearing long sleeves, sweat pants and a head scarf. Even then, she is told her place should be in the home – not participating in sports.
“For some men, nothing is good enough,” Farah said.
Even Abdi faces constant difficulties, passing through military checkpoints where he is shaken down for money. And when he has competed in sanctioned track events, gun-toting insurgents have threatened his life for what they viewed as compliance with the interim government.
“Once, the insurgents were very unhappy,” he said. “When we went back home, my friends and I were rounded up and we were told if we did it again, we would get killed. Some of my friends stopped being in sports. I had many phone calls threatening me, that if I didn’t stop running, I would get killed. Lately, I do not have these problems. I think probably they realized we just wanted to be athletes and were not involved with the government.”
But the interim government has not been able to offer support, instead spending its cash and energy arming Ethiopian allies for the fight against insurgents. Other than organizing a meet to compete for Olympic selection – in which the Somali Olympic federation chose whom it believed to be its two best performers – there has been little lavished on athletes. While other countries pour millions into the training and perfecting of their Olympic stars, Somalia offers little guidance and no doctors, not even a stipend for food.
“The food is not something that is measured and given to us every day,” Samia said. “We eat whatever we can get.”
On the best days, that means getting protein from a small portion of fish, camel or goat meat, and carbohydrates from bananas or citrus fruits growing in local trees. On the worst days – and there are long stretches of those – it means surviving on water and Angera, a flat bread made from a mixture of wheat and barley.
“There is no grocery store,” Abdi said. “We can’t go shopping for whatever we want.”
He laughs at this thought, with a smile that is missing a front tooth.
When the gun went off in Samia’s 200-meter heat, seven women blasted from their starting blocks, registering as little as 16 one-hundredths of a second of reaction time. Samia’s start was slow enough that the computer didn’t read it, leaving her reaction time blank on the heat’s statistical printout.
Within seconds, seven competitors were thundering around the curve in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, struggling to separate themselves from one another. Samia was just entering the curve when her opponents were nearing the finish line. A local television feed had lost her entirely by the time Veronica Campbell-Brown crossed the finish line in a trotting 23.04 seconds.
As the athletes came to a halt and knelt, stretching and sucking deep breaths, a camera moved to ground level. In the background of the picture, a white dot wearing a headband could be seen coming down the stretch.
Until this month, Samia had been to two countries outside of her own – Djibouti and Ethiopia. Asked how she will describe Beijing, her eyes get big and she snickers from under a blue and white Olympic baseball cap.
“The stadiums, I never thought something like this existed in the world,” she said. “The buildings in the city, it was all very surprising. It will probably take days to finish all the stories we have to tell.”
Asked about Beijing’s otherworldly Water Cube, she lets out a sigh: “Ahhhhhhh.”
Before she can answer, Abdi cuts her off.
“I didn’t know what it was when I saw it,” he said. “Is it plastic? Is it magic?”
Few buildings are beyond two or three stories tall in Mogadishu, and those still standing are mostly in tatters. Only pictures will be able to describe some of Beijing’s structures, from the ancient architecture of the Forbidden City to the modernity of the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest.
“The Olympic fire in the stadium, everywhere I am, it is always up there,” Samia said. “It’s like the moon. I look up wherever I go, it is there.”
These are the stories they will relish when they return to Somalia, which they believe has, for one brief moment, united the country’s warring tribes. Farah said he had received calls from countrymen all over the world, asking how their two athletes were doing and what they had experienced in China. On the morning of Samia’s race, it was just after 5 a.m., and locals from her neighborhood were scrambling to find a television with a broadcast.
“People stayed awake to see it,” Farah said. “The good thing, sports is the one thing which unites all of Somalia.”
That is one of the common threads they share with every athlete at the Games. Just being an Olympian and carrying the country’s flag brings an immense sense of pride to families and neighborhoods which typically know only despair.
A pride that Samia will share with her mother, three brothers and three sisters. A pride that Abdi will carry home to his father, two brothers and two sisters. Like Samia’s father two years ago, Abdi’s mother was killed in the civil war, by a mortar shell that hit the family’s home in 1993.
“We are very proud,” Samia said. “Because of us, the Somali flag is raised among all the other nations’ flags. You can’t imagine how proud we were when we were marching in the Opening Ceremonies with the flag.
“Despite the difficulties and everything we’ve had with our country, we feel great pride in our accomplishment.”
As Samia came down the stretch in her 200-meter heat, she realized that the Somalian Olympic federation had chosen to place her in the wrong event. The 200 wasn’t nearly the best event for a middle distance runner. But the federation believed the dash would serve as a “good experience” for her. Now she was coming down the stretch alone, pumping her arms and tilting her head to the side with a look of despair.
Suddenly, the half-empty stadium realized there was still a runner on the track, still pushing to get across the finish line almost eight seconds behind the seven women who had already completed the race. In the last 50 meters, much of the stadium rose to its feet, flooding the track below with cheers of encouragement. A few competitors who had left Samia behind turned and watched it unfold.
As Samia crossed the line in 32.16 seconds, the crowd roared in applause. Bahamian runnerSheniqua Ferguson, the next smallest woman on the track at 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, looked at the girl crossing the finish and thought to herself, “Wow, she’s tiny.”
“She must love running,” Ferguson said later.
Several days later, Samia waved off her Olympic moment as being inspirational. While she was still filled with joy over her chance to compete, and though she knew she had done all she could, part of her seemed embarrassed that the crowd had risen to its feet to help push her across the finish line.
“I was happy the people were cheering and encouraging me,” she said. “But I would have liked to be cheered because I won, not because I needed encouragement. It is something I will work on. I will try my best not to be the last person next time. It was very nice for people to give me that encouragement, but I would prefer the winning cheer.
She shrugged and smiled.
“I knew it was an uphill task.”
And there it was. While the Olympics are often promoted for the fastest and strongest and most agile champions, there is something to be said for the ones who finish out of the limelight. The ones who finish last and leave with their pride.
At their best, the Olympics still signify competition and purity, a love for sport. What represents that better than two athletes who carry their country’s flag into the Games despite their country’s inability to carry them before that moment? What better way to find the best of the Olympic spirit than by looking at those who endure so much that would break it?
“We know that we are different from the other athletes,” Samia said. “But we don’t want to show it. We try our best to look like all the rest. We understand we are not anywhere near the level of the other competitors here. We understand that very, very well. But more than anything else, we would like to show the dignity of ourselves and our country.”
She smiles when she says this, sitting a stone’s throw from a Somalian flag that she and her countryman Abdi brought to these Games. They came and went from Beijing largely unnoticed, but may have been the most dignified example these Olympics could offer.