|The head of the Somali Olympic Committe and Somali Football Federation were killed in a bomb blast in early April, devasting the morale of the sports community [REUTERS]
With just 100 days until the London Olympics opening ceremonies, one country must cope with overcoming the emotional loss of its sporting figurehead.
The death of the president of the Somali Olympic Committee (SOC), Aden Yabarow Wiish, along with the head of the Somali Football Federation, Said Mohamed Nur, in a suicide attack in early April shocked Somalia’s sporting community.
“It was really a very sad day for all Somalis, especially the sports community who lost their leaders and friends,” said Abdi Bile, the former Somali world champion and Olympic medalist middle distance runner.
“We were calling each other. You could feel the devastation everywhere.”
The attack, which has been attributed to a female bomber but challenged by al-Shabab who claim they had already distributed bombs, killed at least nine other people - including the former minister of youth and sports Mowliid Macane Mahamud.
“It was a big loss for the sports in Somalia,” said Jama Aden, the Qatar Olympic coach for the men’s middle distance team.
“It was very, very shocking to me.”
Aden had known Wiish closely since childhood and spoke of his positive nature:
“That’s what was so special about him. Very charming man, always laughing, very generous,” Aden said.
Abdullahi Mohamed Saneey, a manager for the Somali Olympic team, remembered the long hours Wiish, who had been president since 2009 - put in with a smile.
“He was a very humble, very happy, and he liked to produce young people to the professional level,” Saneey said.
Memorials were held, and others have stepped in to cover the gaps. Duran Farah, senior vice-president and head of international relations for SOC has taken over as the acting president. Whether Farah will maintain the position or another will take the permanent position is still yet to be seen.
Amid feelings of sadness and optimism, anger has surfaced due to the fact that sports figures and organisations - who by nature are largely nonpartisan - often come under fire.
“We have nothing to do with politics,” Aden said.
“I don’t know what the target is.”
It is not the first time the Somali community has had to cope with the horrific loss of lives.
In 2009 another suicide bomber blew up a medical students’ commencement ceremony in an attack that claimed the lives of 25 people, including the minister of youth and sports.
In addition to the deaths of the sports leaders, deaths within athletes’ families are also not uncommon. Abdi Said Ibrahim and Samia Yusuf Omar who represented Somalia in the 2008 Summer Olympics had both lost a parent before they competed.
The success of sports programs throughout greater Somalia has fluctuated tremendously in the last 21 years since the country “collapsed.”
Little funding is available for athletes impacting on the ability for Somalis to participate in sports. Even the neighborhood a Somali resides in can determine the level of freedom they have to access sporting facilities.
Most recently at the height of al-Shabab’s reign, women were banned from sports participation and all Somalis were banned from watching sports or wearing sports jerseys. Many athletes had to hide the fact that they were involved in sports or they faced being accused by al-Shabab of being an Ethiopian spy or Transitional Federal Government loyalist.
Consequently they were forced to flee or risk being murdered.
1987: Abdi Bile becomes first Somali world champion, winning the 1500m race at the World Championships in Rome. His final 800 metres becomes the fastest of any 1500m race in history
January 26 1991: Military dictator Siad Barre ousted from office after several years of civil war
Spring 2007: al-Shabab, a splinter group of the former Islamic Courts Union, begins to take control of Somalia. Among other policies, they begin limiting access to sports, particularly for women
December 3 2009: At least 20 people are killed as a result of a suicide attack at a medical students’ graduation ceremony, including the minister of sports and youth who died from injuries weeks later
July 11 2010: Two bomb blasts in Uganda kill 74 sports fans and wounds 70 more people watching the football World Cup; al-Shabab claims responsibility
August 2011: al-Shabab insurgents begin pulling their fighters out of Mogadishu; humanitarian groups became hopeful they can better reach famine victims
April 4 2012: At least 10 people are killed in a suicide bomb attack, including the president of the Somalia Olympic Committee and the head of the national football team; the former minister of sports and youth dies a few days later
Areas under control of the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government - which have increased - allow more freedom, but due to the high level of suspicions from every warring party, athletes have even been harassed by African Union peacekeeping troops.
“AU troops stop and ask them, ‘Why are you running? Stop, stop, stop!!’ said Saneey, explaining that if an athlete did not stop, he would be shot. When he did stop, he could be delayed for up to an hour for questioning.
“They have to wear normal clothes, not their uniforms because people will think they are soldiers,” he continued.
“You can’t do the training.”
National athletes receive little compensation for their running and struggle with the same hardships as their fellow countrymen. Many have spent time in internally displaced camps or left Somalia in search of a safer life. Even finding one daily meal can be difficult.
“Their body tells them they can’t do anything more,” Saneey said of the physical shape that Somali athletes run in.
Hesitations and risk
While the situation in southern Somalia is arguably improving, most Somalis who left decades ago are hesitant to return due to the security risks.
Despite a strong desire to personally contribute to returning the country to a culture that celebrates and encourages sports participation, they are mindful that a decision to come back could have consequences. Many members of the SOC divide their time between Mogadishu and London, where they have since put down roots.
Making that choice was something that the former SOC president pushed on his friends.
“Even before he died, [Wiis said] why don’t you come to Mogadishu?’” Aden quoted him as saying.
“Someday you have to come back so people can be motivated by you.’”
Others have returned to safer areas, such as Somaliland in northwestern Somalia - a region that has self-governed since 1991 but lacks international recognition.
Abdi Bile, who was given a hero’s welcome by former military dictator Said Barre after he won the 1500m World Championship title in 1987, has lived in the United States for the majority of his adult life.
He made his first trip back in late 2010 and has since spent a significant amount of time volunteering in and near the capital of Hargeisa. He is currently in the middle of establishing an NGO that focuses on youth and sports.
Fortunately, in southern Somalia more opportunities have also become available to athletes, allowing Olympic hopefuls the opportunity to compete globally in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Some training opportunities have also been made possible in Kenya, and a base in Ethiopia was established by Saneey to train men - although there is not enough funding for women.
The SOC went beyond Somalia’s borders this time around to recruit from the diaspora; two on the national team are from London.
Even with the added attention, training and opportunities, it may be too late for the athletes to gain the ground needed to compete on an international level.
Saneey is realistic that many will fail to qualify for this year’s games. None of them have managed to secure anything better than last place in any of the last few months’ international events.
But, as the Olympics have shown fans time and again, anything is possible. And if there is one underdog worth rooting for, it is certainly Somalia.