Samia Yusuf Omar competes in the women’s 200m heats in Beijing, 2008. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
As the Somali team prepares for Rio, the memory of this 21-year-old – who died trying to find safety and coaching in Europe – looms large
In 2008, a thin 17-year-old Somali athlete settled in to her starting block in lane two to prepare for the Olympic 200m dash.
Flanked by women in Lycra outfits, Samia Yusuf Omar stood out in her long black leggings and oversized white t-shirt. On her feet she wore shoes recently donated by the Sudanese women’s track and field team.
At the gunshot, Omar immediately fell behind. The other runners crossed the finishing line several seconds ahead of her, but seeing just how hard she was running, the crowd rose to give Omar the loudest cheer of anyone in the heat.
Charles Robinson, a journalist who watched the race, remembers: “I literally got goosebumps. They were just sort of pushing her.”
When Robinson interviewed Omar after the race the runner explained, embarrassed, that she would have preferred to be applauded for her performance instead of her effort. Seeing the quality of the other athletes in Beijing that year, she had become keenly aware of how few training resources were available to her back home.
On Friday, Somalia’s two newest Olympians will appear in the opening ceremony at the Rio games, continuing a 20-year tradition of sending competitors to The Games despite their country’s turbulent and often violent history. Omar will not be with them, but her story – one of triumph, determination and tragedy – has come to shape the country’s athletes, who have used her untimely death to fight for better protections and support.
When Omar and her team-mates began training for the new athletics season in 2009, they were no longer just facing poor training conditions. They now had to contend with the growing influence of the militant Islamist group, al-Shabaab, which which had come to control all but two key kilometres of the capital, Mogadishu.
“Of the era of al-Shabaab, it was the worst,” said Leila Samo, a former team-mate of Omar’s, who now plays handball for Somalia. “A girl could not run, could not even walk without wearing heavy robes.”
The group not only banned all sports in the areas they controlled across southern Somalia, but pressured athletes to join their ranks.
“In that time [between 2008-2011], if you wore sports clothes al-Shabaab could have said: ‘Oh, you have leisure time. Come and fight with us’,” says Abdulahi Bare, a middle-distance runner and close friend of Omar’s.
By October 2010, after being forced to relocate to a camp for displaced persons outside the capital, Omar decided to leave Somalia. It had become too difficult for her to train and she dreamed of finding a coach in Europe. By late 2011 she was in Libya, having paid smugglers to transport her across from Ethiopia and up through Sudan.
Her sights still firmly fixed on competing at the summer Olympics, Omar boarded a flimsy, overcrowded boat in April 2012, hoping to arrive in Italy and find the training she so desired. It was a risky plan: she had no connections to professional coaches or teams in Europe and very few friends or family outside of Somalia.
Pushing off with around 70 other people, they soon ran out of petrol, leaving the boat drifting in open water. When an Italian rescue ship finally found them, many of the migrants fought to grab hold of the ropes thrown down to them. In the chaos, many people were knocked into the water – including Omar.
Witnesses said after treading water for a while, Omar eventually went under. She was never seen alive again. She was 21 years old.
‘We just keep going’
The loss of such a promising young athlete has haunted the national team – and galvanised a fight for reform.
In 2014, a group of athletes gathered to start fighting for better conditions, holding small demonstrations in Mogadishu and boycotting athletic events in the hopes of bringing about new athletic leadership.
Duran Farah, secretary general of the Somalia Olympic Committee, says so far, things have been slow to change. “There are a lot of challenges,” he says.
As yet, no professional facilities have been built to accommodate the athletes in Mogadishu – a provision which is particularly important for women, who are discouraged from training in public spaces.
“Now the security is stable. Slow by slow. But there’s no equipment, no training, no encouragement. That’s why we’re losing our sports people,” said Mohamed Mudie, a sports journalist at a local station, Ciyaaraha FM.
In such challenging conditions, athletes on the national team say many of their team-mates have decided to leave Somalia, lured by the promise of training in financially and culturally supportive environments. They travel to Europe or even Yemen, embarking upon dangerous journeys similar to Omar’s.
For those who try to succeed in Mogadishu, Facebook messages and phone calls from friends who have made the journey abroad can be tempting. Bare says Omar was one such voice when she was in Libya. “She said, ‘You know the situation in Somalia, the situation in the athletic federation, and you know the environment we live in. There is no more improvement. Come with me, we are going somewhere better than here,” she told him.
But many athletes and administrators refuse to give up. “[Sports] is the best use of community engagement and also for building peace and development,” Duran says, explaining why he continues to invest his energy and his own money in sport.
Back in 2010, when asked during an interview to reflect on the hardships she had endured in Somalia, Omar declined to answer and said: “We Somalis don’t look back at those things. We just keep going.”
This is what Maryan Nuh Muse and Mohamed Daud Mohamed, who will be racing in Rio this summer, will be doing, too. Their goal, the same as every other Olympian’s, will be to showcase their sporting talents on the world stage.
Teresa Krug was working as a journalist in northern Somalia when she first met Samia Yusuf Omar in 2010. The two remained close friends during Omar’s departure from Somalia and journey to Libya, where she died in 2012