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Road to the Games, fraught with danger
Sunday, July 01, 2012
Somalia have never won an Olympic medal, and are unlikely to begin their collection in 2012. With none of their athletes meeting qualifying standards, a tiny Somalian contingent will travel to London thanks only to the provision that each National Olympic Committee is guaranteed two slots.
It was only last August, after a protracted battle against troops of the US-backed Transitional Federal Government and the African Union, that Islamist militants from al-Shabaab, the Somali-based cell of al-Qaeda, retreated from Mogadishu, the country’s capital after years of armed skirmishes on the streets of the city.
These were the very streets that the Somali Olympic hopefuls had trained on till then, dodging bullets, since Konis Stadium had served as an al-Shabaab base. The ouster of the militants has brought relative normalcy. In June, after a four-year gap brought about by the conflict, FIFA resumed work on renovating the stadium and relaying its football pitch with artificial turf. Women could now participate in sport once more, after years of repression under the al-Shabaab regime.
But danger still lurked around the corner. In April, a suicide bombing at the city’s national theater killed the president of the SOC and the head of the football federation. With athletes reckoned to be soft targets for the rebels, the SOC will wait till the last moment to name Somalia’s representatives at the Olympics.
Sport in the time of war:
Afghanistan's best medal hopes reside in Rohulla Nikpai, who won his country their first ever Olympic medal at Beijing four years ago, bagging bronze in the 58kg taekwondo. During the civil war of the early 90s, Nikpai's family fled to a refugee camp in Iran, where Nikpai first took up taekwondo at a refugee camp in Iran before returning to Kabul in 2004, where he currently trains. Nikpai's Beijing success inspired a wave of enthusiasm for taekwondo in Afghanistan, subsequently climbing into the top ten in world rankings, despite government funding amounting to less than 20 dollars a month.
Two weeks ago, 28-year-old judoka Maher Abu Rmeileh became the first ever Palestinian athlete to qualify on points for the Olympics. Till then, Palestine (who first took part at Atlanta in 1996) had only been represented on the basis of wildcards given to nations whose athletes fail to gain automatic qualification. Rmeileh trains twice a week at Jerusalem Crescent Club, which transforms into a wedding hall every night, and works every morning at his family’s clothing store in East Jerusalem.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not recognise Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. But the disputed republic will have a representative nonetheless, in the form of Majlinda Kelmendi, a gold medalist at the 2009 World Judo Championships. In London, Kelmendi, who holds a second Albanian passport, will represent Albania in the under-52kg category, in which she is ranked sixth in the world.
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