Somali athletes defeat hardship for shot at glory
Posted Saturday, July 14 2012 at 07:55
Running from war, dodging bullets and defying Al-Qaeda linked Islamist insurgents who ordered them stop: Somalia's determined Olympic hopefuls have overcome challenges few other athletes could even imagine.
"Somalia has had no real government for the last 20 years, but determination, good fortune and hope will take us close to victory," said 18-year-old female athlete Zamzam Mohamud Farah.
The training facilities are pock-marked with bullet holes from years of brutal conflict, but as the four athletes -- two men and two women -- stride out in training, they offer a glimmer of hope for the war-ravaged nation.
Multiple governments have failed to create stability in the Horn of Africa nation, wracked by over two decades of civil war, let alone form a competitive sports team.
Yet coach Ahmed Ali Abikar, who himself ran for his country, believes the team could prove a point to the world about Somalia, which so often appears on international news only for war, famine, drought or piracy.
"We are motivated, our team spirit will see us through," said Abikar, as the athletes stocked up on energy with piles of sugar-laden traditional Somali pancakes. "We can show everyone that sport is still alive in Somalia."
Somalia, like all nations, has two guaranteed slots in athletics, one man and one woman. For the anarchic nation, just having their two athletes fly Somalia's flag in London will be an achievement - but Abikar has higher hopes.
"I'm confident that those we choose to go to London to represent the country in the Olympic Games will come home - we hope - with very good results," Abikar said.
"They lived in conflict the whole of their lives and that could impact their performance, but their talent is fantastic," he added, watching as the athletes exercised in T-shirts with the Olympic rings neatly hand painted on.
Facilities are a far cry from the first class treatment that characterizes life for star competitors from other nations. Years of war left training facilities in ruins.
"We are suffering from hardships, constant war, lack of finance and hampered by poor facilities," said Abikar in the team's base, a former primary school abandoned during fighting between rival militia forces in the capital Mogadishu.
"We have no personal doctors and in case the athletes get sick, they have to seek general treatment in Mogadishu," he added.
The athletes, aged between 18 and 20, have spent the last six months in camp, but life has been far from easy. The two female athletes were often forced to exercise indoors after threats by extremist Shebab insurgents.
"The Shebab kept threatening me, they wanted to stop me from reaching my dreams," said Farah. "It was hard since that meant we were forced to have our training indoors."
The Shebab fighters abandoned fixed positions in Mogadishu last year, driven out after a long offensive by African Union troops, as well as soldiers loyal to the Western-backed transitional government.
But the hardline rebels -- who have imposed draconian penalties on activities deemed "Western", including football -- have since launched several guerilla style bomb and grenade attacks in the capital, and people remain fearful of them.
In April, a suicide bomber killed the Somali Olympic Committee president Aden Yabarow Wiish in an attack during a ceremony at the national theatre.