Portraits of Olympic Dreams Running out of Africa

Portraits of Olympic Dreams Running out of Africa

Twice this year, the Olympic stadium in London stood on its feet and cheered Mo Farah as he crossed the finish line. The gold medal winner of the Men’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters made his country proud, and instantly he became a hero because no British man had ever won any of those two races. Mo Farah is British. But Mohamed Farah was Somali.

After his win, when asked by a reporter about his origins, Mo Farah replied, “Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up; this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest, I’m proud. I’m very proud.”i Obviously, one cannot dissociate the euphoria for Farah’s British medals with his other identity as a Somali. I don’t think even Mo himself has any doubt that he has not ceased to be Somali, although he left the country at age eight.

The Somali novelist Nurrudin Farah has very eloquently captured that debate when he said: “When I watch Mo Farah breaking records and winning gold, a heated debate takes place in my small brain attic and I cannot decide which of my two competing emotions I must privilege: the emotion of total personal joy, which I share with his family, his close friends, his fans and ‘his’ adopted nation – Britain – and the emotion of unadulterated sorrow, which I feel for his and my country of birth and its people. I wish he were wholly ours; that we, Somalis, had invested in him, invested in his training and had given him all that which have made him a winner.”ii

Samia Yusuf Omar was Somali. Samia was “wholly “Somali; and Samia too is a hero. Samia competed in the Beijing 2008 Olympics. She came last in the Women’s 200 meters, but received a standing ovation for her courage and resilience. Samia died between April and August 2012, somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, while trying to illegally reach Italy. On board a small boat, Samia was trying to get to Europe to find a trainer in order to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. Hodan, who is Samia’s sister, told the BBC, “She decided to go by boat, and we told her not to, and my mother tried to tell her not to… But Samia was very determined and asked for our mother’s forgiveness, and my mother gave it, and she took the boat, and she died.”iii

Drusille Ngako did not take the boat. She arrived in England by plane, all expenses paid by her home country. She is from Cameroon. She was the goalkeeper of the football team, but she did not keep her promise. She evaporated (or defected, if you prefer) on July 2, before their first game. The five boxers Thomas Essomba, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Abdon Mewoli, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo, Serge Ambom, and the swimmer Paul Ekane Edingue, all members of the Cameroonian Olympic team followed in her footstepsiv. Three Guineans, three Ivoirians, and four Congolese either never returned to the Olympic villagev. These men and women did not run for their country like Mo and Samia did. They ran away from their country. They killed the dream.

Whether these athletes shall remain nameless or will be granted citizenship in their new countries of residence, we ought to ask ourselves why this has become a frequent occurrence when African athletes participate in international competitions. Olympic defections are not a new phenomenon. But ‘older’ defections were usually motivated by a political stance. Are economic constraints now overriding national pride? And what about the debt that an athlete should owe to the country that has vested and invested its Olympic dreams on him/her? Why is this even an African problem?


ii http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/Farah-on-Farah





Oumar Ba

Oumar Ba is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Florida, USA.

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