These athletes dodge bullets, bombs

These athletes dodge bullets, bombs

Training in a bullet-riddled stadium where the remains of a rocket propelled grenade lies discarded on the track’s edge counts as progress for Somali Olympic hopeful Mohamed Hassan Mohamed.

A year ago, Mogadishu’s Konis stadium was a base for militants and a work out meant at times running through the streets, dodging gun-fire and mortar shells in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. “It’s easier for us to train now,” said Mohamed.

It is a staggering understatement from the 22-year-old, one of four Somali athletes vying for the two slots guaranteed for Somalia at the London games.

For 20 years the capital’s rutted roads were the frontline in running battles between feuding warlords and later Islamist insurgents fighting to overthrow a government propped up by foreign forces and cash.

The Konis stadium served as an Al-Shabaab rebel training camp until the Al-Qaeda-linked combatants fled the capital in August last year. Bullet holes pepper the stadium’s concrete stands, which lie in mounds of rubble in places.

Progress, however, is relative. Somalia’s Olympic bid is run on a shoestring. There are no dedicated personal trainers, physiotherapists or nutritionists.

“Our facilities are poor. We don’t have a modern training camp or a modern gym. We should replace our running shoes frequently. Instead, we wash them,” said Mohamed.
For now, the 1,500 metre specialist trains in relative safety, unless the security forces block off the surrounding area in advance of a government delegation on the move, forcing the athletes back onto the streets.

That means competing for space with patrolling armoured troop carriers, donkey carts and mountainous piles of garbage. Roadside bombs have become a growing danger.
In April, a suicide bomber blew herself up at a ceremony in the city’s national theatre, killing the popular head of Somalia’s Olympic committee and at least five others.

“The theatre blast was a painful incident. It was a shocking day,” Mohamed said.
Somalia has never won a medal at the Olympic games.

Its best performance was in 1996 when its most renowned athlete, Abdi Bile, took sixth place in the 1,500 metres in Atlanta. At the time, militia fighters in the lawless capital dubbed their machine gun-mounted pickup trucks ‘Abdi Biles’ in a typically Somali mark of respect for the runner’s power and speed.

Somalia is not expected to announce the names of the two athletes who will compete in London until later this month. Unveiling their identities earlier might endanger their lives in a country plagued by kidnappings and targeted killings.

Rarely able to travel to international meets, no Somali athlete qualified for the London Games outright. Each national Olympic committee is eligible for two guaranteed places -- one for a man, one for a woman -- in athletics.

“Pump your arms. Pump your arms with power,” urged the Somali team coach, Ahmed Ali Abukar, armed with nothing more than a stopwatch. “Don’t slow up. Keep going until you drop,” he yelled as sweat gleamed on Mohamed's sinewy body.

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