Sports News

From weeds to world-class track for Somalia runner

BEIJING (Reuters) - When teenage Somalian sprinter Samia Yusuf Omar competes in the women’s 200m in Beijing, her mother and six siblings in Mogadishu plan to find a neighbor with a television so they can watch her.

She would have loved her father to see her too, but he was killed in 2006 by a rocket attack that hit their two-room home in the relentless fighting that has torn Somalia apart for some two decades. An uncle and aunt are also dead.

Being in the Olympics, with its billion-dollar stadiums and high-tech synthetic running tracks, is like stepping into another world for athletes from war-ravaged nations like Somalia.

“Sport pushes me forward,” said Omar, 17, whose baggy blue tracksuit looks three sizes too big for her spindly frame as she fidgets in a chair in the luxurious Beijing athletes’ village.

“Some people ask how I can be doing sport when so many people are being killed or dying from famine and drought, but being in the Olympics is doing something for my country because everyone will support me regardless of their tribal affiliation.”

Somalia has managed to send athletes to the last half dozen Olympic Games despite a bloody cycle of conflicts since the 1991 fall of a military dictator and rampant poverty.

The latest upsurge of violence has killed 8,000 civilians and forced a million from their homes since the start of last year as Islamic insurgents battle the interim government and its Ethiopian military allies. A severe drought has blown the situation into a growing humanitarian crisis.

For Omar, it means that while her Olympic rivals are fed on carefully monitored protein-rich diets and chauffeured to world-class training tracks, she lives on porridge, rice and scraps of goat or camel meat and trains by running around the lumpy and weed-ridden earth floor of a dilapidated 1940s stadium.


“I eat what I can get hold of. You can’t pick or choose,” she said, speaking through an interpreter, her solemn eyes shadowed by the peak of her oversized baseball cap.

“You can’t complain or blame anyone else for our problems, but it’s different to being in a stable country. Sometimes I would like to be somewhere else so I could have proper training.”

Omar gets up before dawn to pack in three hours of running before helping prepare her younger brothers and sisters for school then going with her widowed mother to tend a fruit stall near their home in the lawless capital, Mogadishu.

But she fears for her life each time she goes to and from the crumbling Italian-built stadium, where she and the one other athlete representing Somalia in Beijing come to train.

The United Nations reckons 3.5 million Somalis may need emergency aid by the end of the year, but many aid agencies are discussing pulling out of parts of the Horn of Africa country after a spate of murders of humanitarian workers.

“I don’t understand politics,” Omar said. “I just want peace for my country so that I can train and win medals, and achieve my dream of becoming a proper athlete.

Editing by Miles Evans