Sunday, August 24, 2008
If you have not visited EAA I suggest you do. I know that everyone leaves with a new appreciation for aircraft.
Take the time to read this article and I promise you will be as inspired as I was.
’s runners provide inspiration Somalia
By Charles Robinson
This is the Olympic story we never heard.
It’s about a girl whose
“I have my pride,” she said through a translator before leaving China. “This is the highest thing any athlete can h
ope 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.
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
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
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
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 hi
s 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,
“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
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
“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.”
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
“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
ling 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
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 difficulti
es 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 runner Sheniqua 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,”
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