24 Jul 2012

Somalia’s athletes brave war to train for the Olympics

Most athletes coming to the London Olympics are thinking of medals, writes Jamal Osman. But for Mohamed and Samsam, their greatest achievement was reaching here safely.

Their journey to the Olympics has meant training in the world’s most difficult conditions, dodging bullets and defying death threats.

They are based in Mogadishu, a city devastated by decades of war. The current conflict is between the African Union troops supporting the government, and al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda-allied Islamists.

I went to Somalia last year to meet the athletes and to witness their daily struggle. The athletes, training for the London Games, were using the main road – the frontline – as their running track. They described “as the road of death”.

I was expecting to tell the story of Somalia’s top athlete Abdinasir Ibrahim and his journey to London 2012 – but decades of conflict have deeply affected him.


His mother and two of his brothers were killed in the war – and this year, his teammate died and Islamists killed the head of Somalia’s Olympic team.

Abdinasir Ibrahim said: “Our Olympic leaders who were helping us died. And safety-wise, running on the road became very difficult for me and that has affected my morale. Mentally.”

His coach said the stress became too much for him. “He started contradicting himself,” Ahmed Ali told me. “Sometime when people talk to him he would get angry and he even burned his running suit saying it was against his religion.”

Despite this, Abdinasir was happy for his replacement – his former training partner Mohamed.


Standing in Konis Satdium, their new training base, Abdinasir told Mohamed: “Since you are representing all of us, you must lift the Somali name in the eyes of the world. We’ll be supporting you from here.”

Mohamed runs the 1,500 and the 5,000 metres. Since he was chosen to represent Somalia, he’s had to get used to being famous.

“Some clap, some shout ‘here comes the national athlete’ and wish you success. At the same time you will see some saying, ‘where is this crazy man running to?'”

Somalia’s other Olympian is Samsam. Her coach spotted her playing basketball and convinced her to switch to running. As a woman in a very conservative Islamic society, she’s had to fight hard to be accepted as an athlete.

Death threats

She often avoids running on public roads and has even received death threats.

Samsam: “My mother was called on the phone and told that they were aware that I played sports, that I was part of the evil and when I get back to the area will be slaughtered.”

For Samsam’s mother, it has been an emotional journey. Samsam’s father left his family many years ago, so she raised three children alone, selling tea on the streets.

“When she told me the news my whole body lifted up,” said Qamar Shire. “I kissed her on both cheeks and told her, ‘may God make you the top.'”

The whole country is behind them. The day before they left the prime minister invited them to say goodbye. At Mogadishu Airport, everybody wanted a photo with them, including ministers.

We stopped over in Dubai. But even then they were still not sure they would get to London. Travelling as a Somali always raises suspicions. Most of the international community, including Britain, don’t recognise the Somali passport.

So British officials were waiting for the athletes and interviewed them at Dubai Airport. Eventually they allowed them through.


After they made it on to the flight to London, they began to get excited – watching a film showing London 2012 preparation.

At the gate of Heathrow Airport, Olympic officials were waiting for them, to take them to Stratford. London’s Somali community were there to welcome them like they’ve won gold.

And the community had other plans. They sweep them up and take them to a Somali restaurant in west London rather to the Olympic village.

The Somali athletes are unlikely to get on to the podium, but when they raise Somalia’s flag in the opening ceremony their Olympic dreams will have already come true.

Jamal Osman is an award-winning film maker. His film about Somalia’s Olympic athletes can be seen on Channel 4 News at 7.00pm on Tuesday evening.