A Somali’s quest took her to the 2008 Olympics, but her story, like those of so many Africans, ended tragically.
By Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed and Robyn Dixon
Los Angeles Times
MOGADISHU, Somalia – When she was 17, Samia Yusuf Omar experienced a brief moment in the international spotlight when she ran a 200-meter race representing Somalia at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Omar finished far behind other sprinters in her qualifying heat, but as a female athlete competing in the Olympics for Somalia, a country known mainly for being a failed state, she made headlines.
She also got hooked on a dream: Omar wanted to train as a runner and compete internationally for her country, and to earn money to support her family. She was determined to get to Europe, where she hoped to find a trainer.
Several months ago, Omar boarded a boat in Libya that she hoped would take her to Italy. The day before, she called her mother, Dahabo Ali Egale. It turned out to be the last time Egale heard from her 21-year-old daughter, who drowned in April after the boat she was on apparently experienced mechanical problems.
Omar became one of the thousands of Africans who drown at sea each year chasing a dream: to get to Europe, make money, and support their families.
When Omar came back from Beijing in 2008, the then-popular al-Shabab militia was fighting to repel Ethiopian invaders. Ethiopia’s forces departed in 2009, leaving al-Shabab, with its strict sharia, or Islamic law, in place. Women had to cover up, wearing long, dark flowing garments. The militia banned Somalis from watching sports or participating in sporting events. People who tried to train as runners or play soccer risked being arrested, beaten or even forcibly recruited into the militia.
Al-Shabab, which rapidly lost popularity, abandoned Mogadishu, the capital, but continued carrying out sporadic attacks.
Egale, who was widowed in 1991, had to eke out a living selling vegetables to support her seven children. But with clashes escalating in Mogadishu in 2009, she was unable to sell vegetables, and there was little money for the family.
“I had to stop my business and we missed out on food and Samia missed out on even her bus fare. So she decided to leave the country to try to get training,” Egale, 51, said in an interview at her Mogadishu home.
“I remember she was saying, ‘Mom, I want to earn money with my running,’ ” Egale said, tapping her leg for emphasis, tears running down her face.
In April 2011, Omar fled to Ethiopia in the hope of finding a trainer there. She later went to Libya, where she planned to take a boat to Europe. Egale tried to persuade her daughter not to go by boat.
“I advised her not to go by sea, but she insisted. I really believed she wouldn’t have any problems, so I accepted her decision to travel by boat, and she did,” Egale said.
In April, the night before the boat departed, Egale heard from Omar.
“She called me and said: ‘Mom, I am going to Italy. It’s a tough journey, but I will try my luck. Pray for me. I miss you, but we’ll be reunited in Europe soon.’ Those were her last words,” said Egale, weeping.
There are conflicting reports about what happened to the boat’s engine. Egale said the engine failed, while other reports say the boat ran out of gasoline. An Italian vessel came to the rescue and ropes were thrown to the people in the stricken boat, but seven drowned while trying to make it from one boat to the other. Omar was among those who did not make it.
Khadija Aden Dahir, senior vice president of the Somali Athletics Federation, said Omar’s death was a huge loss for Somalia.
“She dedicated her life to winning at the Olympics. I still remember at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when her race ended in failure she was very upset and she refused to eat dinner that night. She believed that athletics was extremely important and she gave a lot of time and energy to it,” said Dahir. “She always said that she wanted to win in the 2012 London Olympics.”
Omar’s death was reported last month after former runner Abdi Bile spoke of how Somalis were proud of this year’s Olympic performance by Somali-born British runner Mohamed “Mo” Farah, but would never forget Omar.
“Samia died at sea and no one buried her body. She is missing at sea,” Egale said. “She was dedicated to becoming one of the best Somali runners. Above all, that was her dream.”
THE AL JAZEERA PROFILE: SAMIA YUSUF OMAR
“It was the happiest moment we ever had because we took our flag. We raised our flag. We felt like we were very important people.”
The 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies hold much more sentimentality for Somalia’s Samia Yusuf Omar, but it was her performance in a single 200-metre heat that sealed people’s memories of her.
Crouching at the starting line beside the fastest women in the world, Samia Yusuf Omar had three things on her mind: winning, helping her family and bringing honour to her country.
She was dressed in knee-length spandex, a baggy t-shirt and shoes recently donated by the Sudanese female track team. Her wiry frame, which exposed her simple diet of mainly sugary bread and pasta, was a stark contrast to the muscular sprinters beside her.
Feeling confident at the beginning of the race, her distraught face at the end told a different story.
It has been almost three years since the unknown runner flashed onto the world stage to just as quickly disappear.
Her time was a disappointing 32 seconds – eight seconds behind her competitors – but her finish arguably got her more applause than the first place winner.
The initial flurry of interest about this tiny unknown runner from war-stricken Somalia died just as quickly due to the language barrier and Samia’s indifference toward the media. As a result, few articles exist on this remarkable young lady.
Spectators and readers were left wondering, ‘Who is this girl? How did she make it here?’ and ‘When will we see her next?’
Not much has changed.
Indeed, in many ways her athletic career has regressed. Somalia, a failed nation that has not seen an effective central government in 20 years, continues to become increasingly volatile and unstable.
Understandably, opportunities and resources to train have understandably decreased.
After the Olympics, she folded quietly back into Mogadishu. Her family and neighbours received her with pride, but there was little other fanfare. Her race had taken place around midnight local time, and because no radio or television station in Somalia had carried the event, no one – including her family – had seen her compete.
Poor training facilities
Before the Olympics, Samia had primarily practiced at Mogadishu’s Coni Stadium.
It was little more than a bombed-out shell whose so-called track was full of potholes, but it served as the best option for Samia and her fellow teammates.
Several times a week they would attempt to meet with volunteer coaches here to improve times and form.
Harassment from rotating militia groups or pockets of violence in one neighborhood would often prevent Samia from either attending practice or returning home afterward.
Meanwhile, Samia – who dropped out of school in the eighth grade after the death of her father – was caring for her five younger siblings so that her mother could earn a small income as a produce vendor.
Soon after Samia returned from China, however, she had to begin hiding the fact that she was a runner.
A life-threatening encounter with al-Shabaab instilled a lasting fear in her, and she began publicly denying that she was an athlete when asked.
While living in an internally displaced camp monitored by Hizbul-Islam about 20 km outside the capital in December 2009, Samia lived side-by-side other Somalis who were never the wiser that they had an Olympian in their midst.
The changing political atmosphere not only made it difficult for women to train, but it also became dangerous for all athletes.
Al-Shabaab banned all Somalis from participating – or even watching – sports or wearing sports jerseys. The stadium became a base for the organisation, and heart-stopping phone calls forced many of Samia’s friends to flee to other parts of Africa and even Europe.
Despite the best intentions of members of the Somalia Olympic Committee, little remains of the organisation but its name and legacy.
In a devastating blow in early December 2009, Suleiman Olad Roble – the visionary Minister of Sports and Youth – was injured and later killed as a result of a suicide bombing at a medical students graduation.
Currently, plans for a facility in Puntland, in central Somalia, have yet to be realised, and many of the key members of the Somalia Olympic Committee live abroad.
In an act of determination and desperation, this young woman has left her family behind to move to Ethiopia – not just a bordering country, but also one that has long been renowned for the calibre of its runners.
After verbally defending her home country for years, Samia admitted that she no longer has any desire to return to Somalia – at least not in its present condition. She is hopeful that Addis will give her the opportunities that Mogadishu cannot.
In late April 2011, Samia meets with Eshetu Tura, a former Ethiopian Olympian.
He had been suggested by two Somalis developing the sports program in Qatar: Coach Jama Aden – a heavyweight in the track world who put Sudanese male runners on the map – and Mohamed Suleiman, Qatar’s first Olympic medalist.
Upon the initial meeting, Tura admits that he had never heard of the young athlete.
Because of his deep respect for Mohamed and Jama, however, he patiently listens to her explain why she had arrived in Addis.
“God willing,” Samia plans to run in the 2012 Olympics, but desperately needs a coach.
She doesn’t admit it, but her fairly secure position is also based partly on the fact that Somalia does not have the capacity to recruit and train new athletes.
The question of whether she will compete hinges more on access to resources than anything else.
Tura seems a little hesitant at first. A combination of Samia being a non-Ethiopian and a middle-distance runner is only the beginning. (Samia switched distances after realising her mistake at the Olympics.)
She will also need funds for various activities that the Ethiopian Athletic Federation covers for its members.
Another concern is that Samia has been unable to train in the last two months due to a number of reasons.
Her cheeks emphasise this fact.
Finding a safe place to run is no longer an obstacle, but she has still struggled to find the necessary facilities and other resources to improve. It is obvious her longing for consistency.
After much discussion, Tura finally agrees to consider allowing her to do endurance training three times a week with his men’s and women’s long distance teams outside the city.
If it’s possible, he will see about tailoring some middle range exercises for her. In order for her to train an additional three days a week – at Addis’s Stadium – she must be granted permission from the Federation. At the very least, she will need a letter from the Somalia embassy to begin this process.
Assuming she is allowed to train with Tura’s teams, she will have to depart at 6 a.m. in order to catch the three buses for the 7:30 a.m. practice. Since moving to Addis seven months ago, she has become more hopeful.
Her body is less tense and her eyes are considerably less suspicious. She has set new goals – including relocating her family once she earns enough money through her running – and she is overall more hopeful.
This news means only one thing to her: she finally has a coach.
The next day, we agree to meet at the Addis Ababa Stadium.
I arrive early enough to watch the internationally renowned Ethiopian men’s and women’s teams practice.
Dozens of athletes cool down along the track or lounge in the stands chatting and laughing.
Many of them sport the official ‘Ethiopia’ green and yellow jackets.
The camaraderie between the genders is obvious, and many of them hug upon meeting the other. While it is clear that the athletes take their sport seriously, there is a refreshingly relaxed air surrounding the place.
The track is a worn red color, but otherwise in good condition.
Parking is limited for the 35,000 spectator seats, but otherwise the facilities are relatively well maintained.
In fact, the stadium is so highly regarded, it has been the site of many international competitions. Samia herself competed here three years ago at the African Athletics Championships.
Fantu Megiso, a short distance sprinter, comes over to praise the Ethiopian program.
She speaks of her recent performance at the European Indoor Championships in Paris and lists off several countries she plans to compete in this summer.
Her best time in the 200 metre is an even 23 seconds. Had she performed similarly in Samia’s heat, she would have vied for first place at the Olympics.
On average, the Somali team is invited to only one regional competition per year. Samia last competed in August 2010 in Nairobi, Kenya, where she placed poorly but set a new personal record.
Today, Omar finally arrives in the middle of several Addis clubs’ trainings.
The national team has since departed and the country’s next generation of hopefuls has begun running.
Samia is coming from across town, where she lives with her aunt and cousins. Because other family members live nearby, she has fortunately been able to land in a secure support group.
She immediately meets with Dr. Yilma Berta, the head coach for the Federation.
Berta explains how the top 250 track athletes from around Ethiopia are selected to train with the national team.
From this number, the top three in each event are chosen for the Olympics and other international competitions. Four or five coaches are provided for each athletic event.
In addition to formal training, the coach details how members are also provided with access to all facilities, clothing, transportation, food, camps and often accommodation.
Doctors are also always on hand. The clubs often take some of the financial burden as well.
While the Ethiopian government assists with major events – both internally and abroad – the federation is largely self-funded through donations, sponsorships and properties.
When prompted, Berta says that he doesn’t see major differences between what is offered to Ethiopian athletes and other countries’ professional athletes.
As the meeting closes, Berta finally turns to Samia to ask her specific questions about her training and times for the 1500 metres.
“Five flat? You’ll need to make at least 4:20. That’s a big difference,” Berta explains, not unkindly to Samia.
He stresses that regardless of her ability to train with his teams, she must run with other women and in her distance range. Unfortunately, neither have always been options for her.
Berta reiterates the need for Samia to gather the necessary paperwork to obtain permission to train in the stadium.
He hesitates to give false hope, but at the same time he refrains from being dismissive. Perhaps with better coaching she could make up some ground in her performance.
After the meeting, Samia takes a seat in the stands to watch the local clubs practice. Her skirt and jacket cover her track pants, and her shoes are safely tucked away in a small bag. Her hand softly clutches the area between her chest and neck.
“I am very fearful of the national team,” she breathes.
“Last time [at the 2008 African Athletics Championships] I was not afraid. Now I am very afraid.”
More than once she whispers this fear as she watches Ethiopia’s next generation of hopefuls improve their skills.
Up until this point, she has only shown her signature humor and resilient strength.
Despite her eagerness to meet with her potential coach, she had played it cool: occasionally bursting into lyrics from pop songs and smacking her gum.
Even after having survived the most dangerous city in the world, the death of her father at a young age and consistent lack of resources, she trembles at the sight of Ethiopia’s amateur runners.
Off to the side, several energetic deaf athletes from a local club chat with one another. They notice the young lady in the hijab watching them, so two of them come over to invite her to lunch. A third athlete joins them soon afterward.
Through a combination of English and basic American Sign Language, they cheerfully brag about medals and running and ask several questions of Samia.
They’re currently training for a major competition scheduled to take place at the stadium in two days and hope that Samia can come.
Within minutes, her laughter takes over. By the time the boys slip away for food, her heavy breathing has subsided.
The 2012 Summer Olympics are still a long way off for this Somali athlete in more than one way. Similar to her beloved country, she is working with what she has: pursuing short-term fixes in hopes that long-term solutions will evolve.
Like every athlete, come competition day Samia too will be looking for the gold.
No one trains in hopes of taking last place. But perhaps her worth as a runner won’t need to be determined by the final results.
The Olympics are based on a tradition that celebrates the struggle as well as the triumphs. For someone who has overcome so much at such a young age, there seems to be no greater testament to this spirit than Samia Yusuf Omar.
Editor’s Note: It is believed that Samia Yusuf Omar died in a boating accident in April 2012 while traveling from Libya to Italy.
Samia Yusuf Omar Factbox
January 26, 1991: Military dictator Mohammed Siad Barre ousted, throwing Somalia into a collapse lasting more than two decades, turning country into most failed nation in the world.
April 30, 1991: Samia Yusuf Omar born in Mogadishu to Omar Yusuf and Dahabo Ali; first of six biological children.
December 2006-January 2007: Islamic Courts Union (ICU) effectively pushed out of power by American-backed Ethiopian troops.
February 2007: Samia’s father (and uncle) die from blast of mortar attack in Bakara Market, where both worked.
March 2007: Samia drops out of 8th grade to take over household duties so mother can work as produce vendor to earn income.
April 2008: Samia competes in the 100 metres in Djibouti at East African Junior Championships, her first international competition. Places fifth out of eight runners.
May 2008: Samia competes in 100 metres in African Championships in Addis Ababa, finishing last in her heat.
July 2008: Samia competes in a single heat in the 200 metres in the Beijing Summer Olympics. Takes last place, finishing approximately eight seconds behind her competitors to a standing ovation from the crowd.
January 2009: Moderate Islamist and former leader in the ICU, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed elected president of Somalia’s fragile transitional federal government (TFG).
November 2009: Power struggle between three major groups – TFG, al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam – means moderate TFG only controls a couple kilometres of Mogadishu. Due to volatile environment, Samia’s mother makes difficult decision to discontinue working; family rely on outside help to survive.
December 3, 2009: Scores of students, ministers and attendees of a medical school graduation injured or killed during suicide bombing. The Minister of Sports and Youth dies in February as a result of injuries.
December 2009: Samia and family move to an internally displaced camp outside the capital; they return at the end of the month when Samia’s mother decides that she would rather her family risk the violence in Mogadishu than dehumanising conditions of IDP camp living.
July 2010: Samia competes in the African Championships in Nairobi, finishing last in her heat.
October 2010: Samia relocates to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in hopes of being able to train regularly and under safe conditions.