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The road to London 2012: Somali athletes dare to dream of Olympics
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
Clar Ni Chonghaile
Amal Mohamed Bashiir received death threats and was forced to train under a different name when al-Shabaab were in Mogadishu. Photograph: Clar Ni Chonghaile for the Guardian
As Mogadishu breathes again after ousting Islamists, Somalis compete for two wildcard places at Games
Amal Mohamed Bashiir has risked her life to run. Now, the 18-year-old Somali hopes that determination will pay off with a place at the London Olympics.
In a cafe outside Mogadishu's airport, she described life as a female athlete when the Islamist rebels of al-Shabaab occupied parts of Somalia's capital.
"When al-Shabaab were in Mogadishu, I received many threats, phone calls from people saying they would kill me. I used to train inside a basketball hall and I used a different name," she said, wearing a long black veil with a lace band around her forehead. "But now I feel so happy because the security situation is changing. Things are easier," the 18-year-old added, speaking through an interpreter.
The al-Shabaab fighters, who impose a harsh form of sharia in areas they control, pulled out of Somalia's capital last August, after months of fighting African Union troops building by building. But the group still carries out suicide bombings and assassinations in the city, and there is also danger from freelance militias and guns for hire.
Like Ms Mohamed, Mohamed Hassan Mohamed is among the handful of Somalis hoping to be selected as one of two athletes – one male and one female – to compete at the Games on wildcard places. He hopes to run in the 1,500m and 5,000m. The 19-year-old is ambitious and driven, but just a few months ago, he nearly ditched his dream.
On 4 April, the head of the Somali Olympic committee, Aden Yabarow Wiish, died when a suicide bomber blew herself up at Mogadishu's newly reopened national theatre. Said Mohamed Nur, head of the country's football federation, was among five others killed.
The deaths were a huge blow to the community. Mr Mohamed thought the bombing marked the end of his Olympic hopes. "When something bad happens, you can imagine everything. I thought I could no longer be an athlete in Somalia because of the danger," he said.
The athletes' coach, Ahmed Ali, had to work hard to lift his young contenders' spirits. "We know death comes to every person but their deaths were so sad. We tried for days to calm ourselves. I was trying to encourage the athletes, to say that this would not influence our training," he said.
Mr Mohamed finally decided to push on. "My coach and colleagues encouraged me … and I decided to stick with it because I am trying to serve my country's reputation and I am running for Somalia."
The two athletes train six days a week at the Konis stadium in Mogadishu, which has started to breathe again since the Islamists were driven out. Somalis are returning from abroad with money to invest, locals are daring to start up coffee shops and internet cafes, and the streets are busy even as dusk descends, blurring the holes gouged by bullets and rockets in crumbling buildings.
The best-known Somali-born athlete is Britain's world 5,000m champion, Mo Farah, who moved to the UK when he was eight. He will compete in London in the same event as Mr Mohamed, if the young Somali makes the final cut. Farah is a role model along with Abdi Bile Abdi, who became 1,500m world champion in 1987, the first Somali to do so. "I will try to meet [Farah]," said Mr Mohamed. "I will express my gratitude and tell him I support him as a Somali guy."
Today Ms Mohamed, who hopes to compete in the 200m and 400m, can run in the streets, train in a local stadium, and dream of a better future for a country that has had no functioning government in her lifetime.
There are still challenges. Somali athletes do not have the resources of their competitors. Even their diet is simple: they eat bread, camel meat, fruit and eggs for breakfast, served with vitamin C-rich camel milk. Lunch is spaghetti or rice with meat and again, camel milk. There are no energy drinks on sale in Mogadishu so they drink fruit juices, such as mango.
And although the days of regular death threats are past, not everyone in this Muslim nation approves of female athletes. Ms Mohamed laughed softly as her coach spoke of the comments she gets as she trains in the streets. "Some people clap and welcome [the athletes] and others say, 'Why? You are a woman. Why don't you go to bed and sleep because women don't need to do such a hard job?'" said Ahmed Ali.
The 18-year-old has a quick retort: "I am a woman but I am also an athlete. I would be proud as a Somali girl to hold the flag of my country."
It is a country that is changing, perhaps slowly but for the first time in many years, young Somalis can start to believe in a better future. "Now I see that Mogadishu is being reborn. I hope one day I will drive my car through the streets of a peaceful Mogadishu," said Ms Mohamed.
Mr Mohamed wants to be part of the transformation: "I want the people of the world to see a Somali running in the Olympics in London, holding the country's flag … I want to change the international view of Somalia because people see it as a place of war, a country with no development."
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