At the end of her first qualifying heat in the women’s 200m race at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the defending Olympic champion, Jamaican Veronica Campbell Brown, cruised across the finishing line in 23.04 seconds. Campbell-Brown went on to become only the second women in Olympic history to win back-to-back gold with a time of 21:74, the fastest time of the decade.
The following six runners in the opening heat clocked times that ranged from 23:06 – 23:67. The eighth runner, however, received growing applause as she crossed the line in 32:16, almost eight-and-a-half seconds behind seventh-placed Isabel Le Rioux of South Africa.
That last runner was Samia Yusul Omar, a 17-year-old Somali. She, perhaps more than most, encapsulated the Olympic Creed:
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win
but to take part,
just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph
but the struggle.
The essential thing is not to have conquered
but to have fought well.”
As a young Muslim Somali woman, she faced crippling odds. The year before Beijing she was forced to train without attracting the attention of the militant Islamist group, al-Shabaab, whose growing influence in Somalia saw little value in the mental and physical development of females.
When Samia reached Beijing, unlike her fellow competitors sporting designer gear, she lined out in an oversized t-shirt and donated runners.
Later Samia stated: “We know that we are different from the other athletes. But we don’t want to show it. We try our best to look like the rest. We understand we are not anywhere near the level of other competitors here. We understand that very, very well. But more than anything else, we would like to show the dignity of ourselves and our country.”
Undeterred by her performance Samia was determined to pursue her dreams of developing her running talent. But Somalia was a dangerous environment. For a period Omar was forced to live in a relocation camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Training was difficult so she decided to leave her country in 2010 and began the long and dangerous trek through Ethiopia and Sudan to Libya. Her hope was to get to Europe, find a coach, and qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
On March 31, 2012, Samia Yusuf Omar settled into a flimsy overcrowded boat with 70 souls on board. After 15 hours the boat ran out of petrol and began to drift in the open waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Eventually an Italian rescue ship found the boat and approached. A struggle ensued to grab ropes thrown from the ship and several people fell overboard. One of those was Samia. She did not know how to swim. Witnesses say she treaded water for a while before going under, never to be seen again. She was 21 years old. She was one of seven migrants who died in the morning of April 2, 2012, 87 miles south of Lampedusa.
The story of Samia Yusul Omar and her athletic legacy in Somalia can be read here:
Footage of Samia’s 2008 Beiijing Olympic race can be seen here: